Kissing the gunner’s daughter, Raymond Huber

A Respectable Girl
Fleur Beale
Random, $19.00,
ISBN 186941764X

Sea of Mutiny 
Ken Catran
Random, $18.95,
ISBN 1869417070

Red Leader Down 
Ken Catran
Random, $19.99,
ISBN 1869417593

Red Haze: Australians and New Zealanders in Vietnam
Leon Davidson
Black Dog, $16.95,
ISBN 1876372958

A Respectable Girl is one of the most enjoyable historical young adult novels I’ve read for a long time. The story ranges from newly settled Taranaki in the 1860s to the stately homes of Victorian England. The colony is on the brink of civil war and 15-year-old Hannah walks between two worlds in the township of New Plymouth. To the English, she is expected to be a respectable young lady, but Hannah’s family is part-Maori. She has become a resourceful, feisty and free-thinking female.

Local gossip casts doubt upon the idealised image Hannah has of her dead (English) mother. To unravel the secrets of her parentage, she decides to travel to London to meet the really respectable relatives. Meanwhile, tensions over land ownership are growing, and Hannah’s family is inevitably divided. Some Maori agree to sell the tribal land, while for others “to give up the land is to die”. The settlers have begun to see the land as their home: “We didn’t come to be confined in a little town on the edge of the wilderness. The Maoris don’t use the land.” As guerrilla warfare against the British begins, Hannah and her twin brother reach England. Here the novel becomes a bit of a Victorian melodrama: there are betrayals, twists and revelations until justice is done in satisfying style.

The English ideal of respectability guides many of the characters. The advice given to young ladies is “Never go beyond the line of what is pleasing” – pleasing to men, of course. At first it seems that Hannah’s feminism is a bit too contemporary, but then Beale reminds us of the amazing Mary Wollstonecraft. In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft observes that women are raised to be “soft, obedient and pleasing to men”.

Wollstonecraft becomes one of Hannah’s guiding lights, but the latter’s resistance to respectability leads her into some fraught relationships with men, especially the soldiers who arrive to fight the Maori. Hannah sees marriage as “a dangerous business”, which isn’t surprising given the long line of scurrilous male characters in the novel. The men spend most of their time chasing after mistresses or wars. Hannah at last falls – with womanly meekness – into the arms of a loving man to provide the crowd-pleasing romantic ending. For me, this was the only meek page in the novel.

The story is a vivid recreation of the challenges facing early settlers in New Zealand; the primitive conditions for childbirth, for example. Beale’s writing is, as always, pitched perfectly for the young teenage audience. She’s packed this novel with enough history, drama and memorable characters to make an epic movie. Highly recommended for readers aged 13 to 16 years, though probably more appealing to girls.

“Bligh: Synonymous with tyranny, high-handed, cruel and dictatorial behaviour”, according to the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable; but is this historically accurate? In Sea of Mutiny, Ken Catran successfully debunks the Captain Bligh myths of the famous mutiny on the Bounty. This is a story of exploitation and rebellion, but also a remarkable survival adventure. There are two distinct narrative strands: the developing mutiny in Tahiti and the castaways’ epic ocean voyage of 3500 miles.

The narrator, 17-year-old John Hallet, sails with Bounty in 1787; its mission, to collect breadfruit plants (used to feed slaves in the West Indies). He experiences Captain Bligh’s fierce temper first-hand but is also surprised at the depth of his wisdom. Cliques form on board Bounty, and in Tahiti the crew rejoices in an apparent paradise of free love and feasting. Here John meets his first love, but discontent is growing, and there’s stealing and desertion. Bligh has crew members whipped, and John farewells his pregnant girlfriend.

After the swift mutiny on April 28 1789, a group led by Bligh is cast adrift in an open boat. They land on The Friendly Islands where they are attacked by cannibals, then pursued by war canoes off “Feejee”. Bligh’s determined leadership keeps their hope alive despite terrible deprivation. They row up the Australian coast where they meet Aboriginal warriors, and the journey ends in Dutch Timor where many of the survivors die of disease. Meanwhile most of the mutineers escape to Pitcairn Island (where they gradually kill each other off). Only five come to trial. John’s innocence is lost during the two-year ordeal; he has seen the dark side of paradise and civilised men.

The novel’s focus is the complex Captain Bligh, while the mutineers are barely fleshed out as characters. Catran has structured parallel stories two years apart; alternate chapters smoothly shifting between the unfolding mutiny and the harrowing sea voyage. The effect of this time switch is a gradual revelation of the character of Bligh. He comes across as brave, authoritarian, fiery and spiritual. The reader sees how he adapts moving from a position of power to one of vulnerability. He’s an effective leader under extreme conditions, possessing both steel and sensitivity as needed. At times, perhaps, his wise sayings on cultural diversity seem a little modern, given that he’s the agent of “breadfruit imperialism”.

The depth of research is evident in the cultural and historical detail.  There’s some choice nautical language – “kissing the gunner’s daughter” – but Catran has opted mostly for a contemporary style of dialogue to maintain readability for teenagers. The short chapters and eventful plot mean it never drags. Catran’s writing style is stark and strong. He’s a prolific writer, and this is one of his strongest books. This true survival tale is second only to Shackleton’s open boat adventure.

In Red Leader Down, Catran turns his attention to WWII. The grandfather of 17-year-old Matt dies, leaving behind an unsolved mystery: was he a coward or even a murderer in the war? Matt discovers his journal and through a series of dream-encounters he hears Grandad’s story. The war story is framed by Matt’s investigations to find the truth in his small town. Grandad is a fighter pilot in the last year of the war in Europe. His commander is Jingo, a man who models himself on the 12th century “honourable” soldiers in The Song of Roland. The pilots are under enormous battle pressure, but also the threat of being accused of cowardice. They dread the words “lack of moral fibre” ending up on their reports.

Jingo becomes increasingly unstable, and the arrival of a German flying ace pushes him over the edge into an aerial duel. It ends in tragedy, and Jingo dies, leaving Grandad holding the “smoking gun”. Matt must travel to France to find evidence that clears the stain on his grandfather’s name. In an unlikely scene, he finds the missing pistol which was thrown into a canal 60 years before.

The novel is about the hidden scars of war. “Whatever war shapes, war also destroys,” says one of the soldiers. Grandad and the other young men can’t avoid the emotional damage of war. Catran makes the point that there’s no heroism or honour in killing people. The slaughter starts (ironically) to get to Grandad after he has strafed a paddock of horses: “Shooting horses shouldn’t have been different to shooting people. Different from shooting people – I could not believe I had thought that. As though killing did not matter any more.”

Catran largely avoids the “goodies and baddies” approach to the war. He humanises the enemy, and includes the devastating revenge bombings of civilians by the Allies, in cities such as Dresden in 1945. For readers who like technical jargon, Catran incorporates a lot of information about war planes and related weapons. There’s plenty of dramatic dogfight action and illustrations of the different fighter planes. The only irritation for me was the dream device Catran uses to introduce Grandad’s story. The use of a dream, a ghost or a time-slip have been overdone lately in historical novels. It isn’t always necessary to link the plot with a contemporary teenage character; some stories from the past can stand alone.

Leon Davidson’s books take the YA reader much closer to the realities of war. His first book, Scarecrow Army – about the ANZACS – was the deserving winner of the non-fiction prize in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards. His second, Red Haze, is an equally involving account of Australians and New Zealanders in the Vietnam War.

Vietnam was a war fought in the jungle – with no front-line, no safe zone and no glory. Davidson explains the origins of the war: embedded in the French occupation of Indochina, the rise of communism, and the determination to halt it. He examines the politics and protests surrounding the 20-year conflict. There are vivid descriptions of battles from the soldiers’ point of view, and numerous quotations from those involved. Davidson is determined to present a balanced picture. He devotes space to the experiences of the Vietcong soldiers, who survived in incredible city-like tunnel systems: “One lived by the hour; one was alive one hour and might be killed the next.”

This is a shocking book. Consider some of the nightmarish weapons used: jumping mines containing ball-bearings, shells that scattered steel darts, and the defoliant Agent Orange. Davidson naturally concludes that the Vietnam War was a tragic waste of life, including over four million Vietnamese civilians killed or wounded. He acknowledges that some soldiers will not agree with how he’s told the story: “But I hope their voices will give a sense of what the war was like for the people who actually experienced it.”

Davidson’s direct, unadorned writing style is perfect for this kind of book, reporting fact and experience in accessible language for teenagers. There are helpful maps, photos, timelines, a military glossary and excellent referencing. A timely book, given the Australian government’s support of a similar American war. There’s almost no YA non-fiction analysis of New Zealand’s role in international wars; Davidson’s writing is filling that void.


Raymond Huber is a Dunedin teacher and writer.  


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Posted in Literature, Non-fiction, Review, War, Young adults
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