Fleur Beale, illustrations by Michaela Sangl
Mallinson Rendel, $16.95,
My Story: A New Song in the Land – The Writings of Atapo, Paihia, c 1840
Robert Moran – Private
You’ve Got Guts, Kenny Melrose
Aunt Effie and the Island that Sank
“Like toys, books for children reflect surely the temper of the period into which they are born,” wrote E B White, author of Charlotte’s Web. I pondered on this as I read the five books reviewed here. Fleur Beale’s Walking Lightly will either reduce you to despair or make you laugh out loud. The design and typography by Hamish Rendell are startlingly original. Michaela Sangl’s illustrations portray with flair the whingeing school kids and their status symbols.
The story is told tongue-in-cheek. Millie and her wealthy parents are outdoor-loving Kiwis. The school kids are not. The possessions for which they yearn range from DVDs and designer pets, to quantities of beauty goo. Blank spaces are available for readers’ additions. Millie is different. She wishes to walk lightly through the world. “You had better be prepared,” warns her Mum. Her Dad says that she needs to be “a girl of extreme resource as well as a girl of extreme independence.” They encourage her to look after herself by camping and tramping. At school, everyone, except possibly Henry, reckons Millie is weird. She tries to adapt and join in. Especially, she longs for a friend. But “She was her and they were them.”
Eventually the whole class, plus some dysfunctional parents and teachers, is on a trip to a tropical island “to discover how other people live.” There is an earthquake. Even Millie gives a tiny “Eeek!” when boulders bounce past the bus, as do the words, literally, up and down the page. There is total confusion and a “multiplicity” of ridiculous grievances and decisions. Millie copes, justifies herself and comes out best. The story, though predictable, is splendidly told with hilarious cynicism. Visually, this is an exceptionally original and successful book.
Fleur Beale’s My Story: A New Song in the Land is set largely in the missionary household of the Rev Henry Williams and his wife Marianne (Te Wiremu and Mata) between 1830 and 1840. The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi is the historical climax of the book. Imaginary details are validated by scholarly additional information. The fictional narrator Atapo, captured and enslaved by an enemy tribe, loses her rangatira status. When Atapo is 14 and her life is at risk, her grandmother sends her to the missionaries for safety and education: “Learn the ways of the Pakeha, then find your way home to your own people. You are the star that will guide them on in days to come.” The Williams family welcomes Atapo.
Writing for her descendants, Atapo explains that the book is based on the diary she kept in the 1830s. She describes how she adjusts to her new life, learns to speak English and to read and write. She accepts Christianity and is baptised. Old enemies still threaten her life, but nothing shakes her belief in her grandmother’s prophecy. She never forgets that she was betrothed as a child to a chief’s son. Atapo’s account accurately mirrors Maori and Pakeha customs as recorded by the missionaries themselves. Marianne mentions the girls’ gifts of mimicry and the inconvenience of their frequent absences. Atapo writes how Tuari “made her mouth small and mean and it was Mrs Blue-Hat’s voice when she spoke” and how “Hawina walked away in the morning to visit her people. Roki refused to do the washing.”
Atapo observes the build-up towards the Treaty. On February 4 Te Wiremu is “working on the paper of the Governor” – translating the Treaty into Maori overnight. On February 5Atapo hears him read and explain this paper at Waitangi. Next evening, at prayers, he gives thanks for the 46 chiefs who have signed, and leads everyone in Psalm 98, “O sing unto the Lord a new song”. Atapo’s personal adventures continue. She recovers mana through her knowledge of Pakeha ways, both good and bad, and is finally welcomed home. This book taught, interested and beguiled me. I hope it becomes a classic.
Jacko Moran fought courageously in the trenches during WWI, but never adapted to civilian life. Robert Moran – Private is a brilliantly well-written re-creation of historical facts about WWII, compressed into the experiences of Robbie, Jacko’s son. Ken Catran’s war books are not for the squeamish. Robbie is determined not to end up like his father. The first time he is in action his nearest companions are splattered to pieces, most of his sergeant’s head is missing. He checks his Bren, “pushing the horror away. Did my old man think like this – and why think of him?”
He fights resolutely through Greece, Crete and North Africa, sometimes saddened by the deaths he causes or witnesses. In Italy, he battles through streets among terrified civilians. “We’ve all changed,” he realises. “Italy is a different war.” His friend Bates has lost his boy-scout enthusiasm. Slinger, who used to take things as they came, especially Iron Crosses and gold watches, now freely shares his rations with starving villagers. Robbie experiences a moment of religious intensity in a bombed church: “A Catholic church and I am Catholic.” After Monte Cassino and hand-to-hand fighting, he understands “how old Jacko fought” and “the peacetime Jacko he became”. In the mountains, he falls in love with gentle Mirella. German SS troops are sent to annihilate the village. Robbie kills them. And wakes up in hospital. The homecoming to New Zealand is fraught with problems.
In contrast to the horrors, Katran also describes moments of beauty and compassion – the desert sky at night; Captain Creel, the elder, fumbling with his Box Brownie camera at the cemetery; and Mirella’s pretence of flying. An episode in Cairo, both funny and tender, ends with a shrewd twist to the usual Kiwi/Brit/Aussie/Yank jokes. Interrupting the narrative are sections in italics written by Robbie from Korea in the 1950s. I found these time-shifts irritating, but they give structure to the book and the final entry gives a glimpse of Robbie’s future. All the loose ends are cleverly tied up by “handwritten” letters. “War is a four-letter word.”
Shirley Corlett’s first two books were stories of mystery and imagination. Her third had an historical background, the wreck of the Wahine. You’ve Got Guts, Kenny Melrose is set in the 1920s and partly relies on Christine Ross’s records of true stories. Kenny and his younger sister Charlotte have been dumped by their mother in an orphanage. Some descriptions certainly sound like personal memories: the queue for the fortnightly dose of sulphur and treacle; the smell of the dormitory – “body-odour, dampness and urine”; the slogan “first up, best dressed”. Social attitudes towards cripples, orphanage kids, “conchies” and shell-shocked ex-soldiers ring equally true. From Kenny’s experience, “Adults kept kids in the dark.” The orphanage director shouts: “Brats with your sort of background need to understand the rules.” What background? wonders Kenny. He wants the truth about his parents.
This book is written in two styles, perhaps emphasising Kenny’s double life. His inner life of fears and longings is sensitively described. The truth, when revealed, is credible and compassionate. The incidents in his outer life are written more like a schoolboy yarn. Kenny, backed by Char, defies authority, gets cruelly belted, takes risks and revenge. He and his gang track burglars, battle the baddies. When Kenny’s inner self dares to ask questions, Aunt Ivy, with whom he now lives, tells him about his father, as does Uncle Norman. Thanks to the burglar incident, Uncle Alf suddenly appreciates Kenny’s guts, and eventually recounts his own war experiences and Kenny’s whole family background.
Kenny’s outer self’s adventure ends brusquely. “Bet those villains can’t believe they were fooled by a bunch of school children,” exclaims Aunty Ivy. “Everything was hunky-dory for the orphanage kids too.” The next page gently describes Kenny and Charlotte opening their parents’ box and sharing childhood memories. Their father has written down his philosophy of life in his Bible. When Kenny grasps what this means, “a great relief filled him”. The two sides of this double story finally converge.
Aunt Effie and the Island that Sank is the third of Jack Lasenby’s books about Aunt Effie. Daisy just might say, in her governessy voice, “You can have too much of a good thing!” A few readers might agree. The rest of us gladly climb onto the Lasenby merry-go-round for a third ride.
With the 26 nephews and nieces, now recognisably individual, we are whirled into treasure-hunting and skulduggery. To give a clue where the treasure is hidden, Aunt Effie tells an Unsuitable bed-time story about pirates and Wicked Nancy. The crocodile’s “teeth went “Tick! Tick! Tick! And – SNAP!” …. And the toothless shark opened wide its gummy mouth and swam around drinking the blood!” David Elliot’s cover picture admirably depicts this refrain. I wish he had also illustrated the Margery Daw, mistaken for a cowshed, being winched and kedged across a paddock; and Uncle Chris racing his Stanley Steam car against a Model T Ford, driven by Aunt Effie’s three husbands in disguise: “Ah-oogah! Kreeeg-ah! Whooo-oop! Boom! Ker-rang-rang! Clank! Clank!”
Aunt Effie, usually fierce or fretful, can be kindly and generous. “You’re tiredy old things,” she says to the little ones, lifting them onto the dogs’ backs. She personally boils up spruce beer to prevent scurvy, and never stints on wheelbarrowsful of greasies for the family. (“You can feed tourists any sort of rubbish as long as you tell them it’s ethnic.”) She bails the Prime Minister out of trouble at the casino and fills her handbag with diamonds. Lasenby suggests referring to Mr Maurice Gee’s book, or the Internet, or the Waharoa Herald, for more details.
Home at last, the nephews and nieces are put to familiar tasks preparing for winter. School is to follow. Or is it? My powers of disbelief are totally exhausted.
So what about E B White’s “temper of the period”? Have we a fixation on violence? A renewed interest in history? Perhaps we are totally but cheerfully disorientated? Common to all the books is the determination simply to survive – preferably with Millie’s resourcefulness, Atapo’s adaptability, Robbie’s courage, Kenny’s guts and Aunt Effie’s panache.
Joan de Hamel is a Dunedin writer.
Aunt Effie and the Island that Sank won the junior fiction category of this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Bernard Beckett’s Malcolm and Juliet (reviewed in our December 2004 issue) won the young adult fiction category.