Truth vs the good story, Laura Kroetsch

Barbed Wire Between Us: A story of love and war
Derek Round
Random House, $29.95,
ISBN 1869415248

Last of the Whalers: Charlie Heberley’s Story
Heather Heberley
Cape Catley, $29.95,
ISBN 0908561903

In Search of Elisa Marchetti: A Writer’s Search for Her Italian Family
Tessa Duder
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0143018442

Charles and Annie Aller and Their Six Daughters
Susan Price and Robin Allardyce
Gondwanaland Press, $33.95,
ISBN 0959776699

Life writing includes memoir, autobiography, family history, oral history and (sometimes) biography. For me, such writing is a sort of compulsion. Not only have I read a lot of it, but last year I began to write a memoir. As a result, I know that I read this writing for possibility, for something more than the story. I am curious about how the story works or doesn’t, what it’s about, what it means, whether I believe the story the writer/speaker insists on telling.

There’s a trick here. When you write a life, in any form, you are insisting on a particular version of a story that is almost always open to dispute (from family, friends, history, other versions). As a consequence, the writer/teller is almost always, consciously or not, endeavouring to make an argument, to create a character, to clear a name, to expose an injustice, to insist that a particular life – the one being told – is an important life, and that the story is not just authentic, but true.  It’s a sort of weird conspiracy, but, like all stories, life stories often tell us more than they mean to. The following books are all life writing and share, to varying degrees, a connection with New Zealand. The first two fit uneasily into the category of biography: they are really oral history.


As its title suggests, Derek Round’s Barbed Wire Between Us: A story of love and war is intended as a war narrative. It tells the story of two British citizens (and young lovers), Kenelm Digby and Mutal Fielder, who were interned in Japanese work camps. Round explains that the book is based on a series of taped interviews and, with the exception of the introduction and epilogue, Barbed Wire Between Us presents their stories in the first person.

It’s a good story. Dibgy and Fielder were both living in Asia, he in Sarawak and she in Hong Kong. They became engaged in Singapore in 1941 and then didn’t see each other again for three and half years. They survived, returned to England and to Asia before finally settling in New Zealand. With the exception of the brief biographical introductions, their story takes place in Sarawak, Hong Kong and the internment camps. I would say that theirs is a story about colonial consequence – but that is not, I suspect, how they would see it.

Digby was working in Sarawak as a legal advisor, helping to draft the country’s constitution. Fielder was a young woman living in Hong Kong, her father a banker. Digby debated at Oxford; Fielder studied dance. When the Japanese invaded, they, like other Europeans (Canadians, Australians etc), were sent to camps. Their accounts of life
before and during the war are fascinatingly rich in detail, especially Fielder’s. She lived the more luxurious life pre-war, but also worked as a nurse in Hong Kong before being interned in the camp at Stanley.

In both stories, the young Digby and Fielder emerge as brave and determined. Both were willing to sacrifice and, being acutely aware of and sensitive to camp politics, both survived. After the war the couple married and returned to Kuching where Digby rejoined the Sarawak government as a legal advisor (later attorney general), before becoming editor of the Sarawak Gazette. They stayed until 1951. All these years later, what you hear in their stories is a quiet insistence that they, the British, were at all times civilised and democratic and that, as individuals, they “remained surprisingly free of bitterness”.

If there is a villain in the piece, it is the Japanese, and in this all too post-colonial age it’s hard to know whether to find Barbed Wire Between Us refreshingly candid or wilfully naïve. (Which is not to say that, as individuals, they deserved to be interned – of course, they didn’t.) What is odd is that neither ever questions what they were doing in the Far East, and these are both educated people intimately involved with the pre- and post-war politics of the region. Perhaps for Digby and Fielder internment offered proof of the need for European civilisation, and that is the point worth remembering. It’s puzzling, and in the end I found their story both engaging and uneasy.


In Last of the Whalers: Charlie Heberley’s Story, Heather Heberly struggles with the oral history/biography of her father-in-law Charlie Heberley. Like Barbed Wire, Last of the Whalers is a colonial story carried on into the present. Charlie Heberley was Worser Heberley’s great-grandson and, like him, a whaler, at least until the last days of whaling in New Zealand.

This is a fascinating story, utterly New Zealand in so many ways: wilful weather, treacherous conditions (economic and otherwise), rugged individuals who survive because they are wily, brave and determined. It is also admirably a family story that insists on both a Maori and Pakeha lineage.

Heather (I’ll use first names to avoid confusion) frames Charlie’s narrative with two stories, those of James Worser Heberley and Te Rauparaha. Each section of the book begins with a Maori proverb, and Charlie himself is described as a man who knows his whakapapa, also as a “kaumatua and a born story-teller”. I like the way the book insists that identity is bi-cultural, but I am also a bit uneasy about the way the Heberleys use this bi-cultural frame. I’m not comfortable with the book’s suggestion that Charlie’s whaling is in some way Maori. Clearly the whaling tradition Charlie belongs to is European, Worser’s not Te Rauparaha’s. To argue otherwise is misleading.

Such a slant is probably in part a function of the story being told from within the family rather than as a more formal biography. This is not to privilege a more “traditional” history, but, as written, the book does raises interesting questions. Not least, its insistence on the connection between New Zealand and a sort of implied innate integrity – an integrity which seems to derive primarily from the Maori, not the colonial side, of the family. The book pushes at questions of identity, in the text and in photographs, including a series that begins with James (Worser) and his wife Te Wai, and ends three generations later with Charlie. What shifts in these images is the identification. After two generations of men who look Maori but dress in European clothes, we come to Charlie, who looks Pakeha but wears a large bone taonga around his neck.

I applaud Heather and Charlie for telling this uniquely New Zealand story, but as a narrative I did find it frustrating. It’s frustrating because Heather neither allows her subject to stand alone nor does she create him as a character within the story. What we end up with is an endless series of “Charlie said”, “Now there was a distinct shift in Charlie’s story”, “Charlie never forgot”, followed by direct quotation. This is not stylistic nitpicking on my part; it is a real issue, and one which, coupled with Heather’s often uninspired prose, distracts from what is otherwise a compelling story.


It was while reading Tessa Duder’s In Search of Elisa Marchetti: A Writer’s Search for Her Italian Family that this question of a colonial past and the politics of identity shifted for me, reinforcing the idea that in New Zealand cultural identity remains a difficult question. This third piece of life writing is both an account of the writer’s own experience of searching for a long-lost relative and a biographical account of the relative’s migration to New Zealand.

Early on, Duder claims that this book comes out of a responsibility:

I owed it to the memory of those courageous Tuscan great-grandparents, to my beloved grandmother – and, at the risk of sounding a little too righteous – to my children. They are of the generation – grandchildren of World War II soldiers and great-grandchildren of those who died in the trenches of the Great War – that now turns out in increasing numbers each year to honour Anzac Day and everything it stands for. Maori children are better served by their culture’s emphasis on whakapapa. Taught little history at school, pakeha children are craving it in their families and in an understanding from the past what it means to be a New Zealander now. My generation, especially the self-absorbed baby boomers five years or more younger than me, who believe by and large that they can learn nothing from history, needs to respect that.


I quote Duder at length because her remarks are telling. Her claim to be a New Zealander requires a claim to a European connection. She aims to locate the historical self in a European/colonial past via those who are products of the First and Second World Wars. What is interesting is that, unlike Heather Heberley’s, this colonial past is not informed by Maori culture; in fact, within greater New Zealand these two cultures remain separate, and it is pakeha culture th~$ is seen as undervalued.

In Search of Elisa Marchetti is true to its title. It’s an account of a journey Duder made to Italy to trace and bring back the story of one branch of her family. Refreshingly, and unflinchingly, she does not find Italy a glorious haven. It is a big, non-English speaking, bureaucratic mess, and huge efforts on her part result in very little in the way of family documentation. What she really discovers is that she is in fact a New Zealander, a hybrid creature from a more agreeable culture, dwelling in that most amiable place – Auckland.

She returns to New Zealand, does more research, and creates the story of Elisa Marchetti, or at least a possible version. In this, the last third of the book, the novelist takes over, narrating a story with characters, settings and lots of detail. It’s a good story – filled with sadness, hardship and remarkable circumstances. In Duder’s telling of it, there is a sort of pleading for historical understanding that is, if not subtle, unexpected.


The last book is a family history, a story lovingly compiled by Susan Price and Robin Allardyce and built on letters, memories, photographs and a family tree. It is in almost every way a conventional story, and that’s okay. The authors let the characters appear and disappear: they grow up in pictures, write letters, marry, have children (or not) and die. The voice of Robin – told through a series of letters – is wonderfully old-fashioned, wry and charming. The daughters are spirited, the gardens lush and the clothes amazing. As a book, it is a gentle experience, somehow very English.

The idea that in life writing we are reading the truth, that this story actually happened, is irresistible; it’s intimate and at the same time public. It’s history, after all, and everyone has a right to history – don’t they? As a story, though, the idea of truth is in itself insufficient; the truth has also to be a good story finely crafted. With life writing, as with any other kind of story, we need to be artful and insistent.


Laura Kroetsch is a Wellington reviewer.


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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, History, Non-fiction, Review
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