Girls under fire, Tatjana Schaefer

Copper Top
Coral Atkinson
Dancing Tuatara, $20.00,
ISBN 9781877192388

Real Life
Ella West
Longacre Press, $19.99,
ISBN 9781877460395

Brother Sister Soldier Cousin
Phyllis Johnston
Longacre Press, $17.99,
ISBN 9781877460319

Three novels about teenage girls disconnected from their families and trying to find their place in the world could not be more different. Copper Top follows the journey of a somewhat naive Irish girl in 1860s New Zealand; Real Life concludes a trilogy about a girl with supernatural powers being used by a secret organisation; Brother Sister Soldier Cousin features a feisty Kiwi in the middle of a torn family in the 1940s.

Comparing these books is not like comparing apples and pears, but more like comparing appetisers, apple pie and pot roast. All three, however, are acceptable food staples for a young girl, as they span a range of concerns facing young women on the cusp of adulthood. Written in each case from a first-person perspective, they give us an insight into the frustrations of three girls at the mercy of others, constantly aware of the restrictions placed on them, and with only limited power to choose their own path.

In Coral Atkinson’s Copper Top a young Irish girl arrives in New Zealand in search of her older brother and his friend, who have come to seek their fortune in the gold rush of the 1860s. The eponymous redhead Copper Top traces her brother’s steps from one settlement to the next. The obstacles she finds on her way, and her specifically Irish character, define the story, and make it an enjoyable read.

Episodes dealing with her short-lived job in a seedy hotel, the dangers a young woman faces alone in a strange country, her memories of Dublin, and her convincing Irish voice draw the reader into Copper Top’s journey. Through her we gain an insight into New Zealand from a foreign point of view that is part of a Pakeha New Zealand memory. Many young readers will recognise it as a depiction of a slice of their own history, and by the end of the book Copper Top seems no longer foreign to her surroundings, but simply one of the many immigrants populating this country to this day.

The protagonist’s Irish idioms, as well as the accents of other characters, contribute to the multicultural flavour. Copper Top’s language does not seem cliché Irish, but natural and charming, making her a likeable and realistic character. A useful glossary is provided, explaining Irish words and phrases to the non-Irish reader, and a few New Zealand terms for the non-New Zealander (though God help us when the word “fraud” has to be glossed for a modern teenage readership).

One shortcoming of Atkinson’s novel is that Copper Top’s journey, rather than becoming one of self-discovery or coming of age, remains always the same search for her brother and his friend. The kind of person she is at the end – a determined young woman with a trade and a romantic interest – she already is at the beginning.

Throughout, the book invites no other ending than that she find her brother, marry the friend and become a cobbler, and this ending is rather too neatly provided. However, since we discover her character and background gradually through her narrative, the novel still works as an exploration of Copper Top’s journey, couched in an interesting historical background.

Ella West’s Real Life is the last of a trilogy, preceded by Thieves and Anywhere But Here. The main character, Nicky, is a modern 21st century girl, whose gift of teleportation makes her extraordinary. In the previous novels Nicky was kidnapped by The Project, a secret organisation that trained her alongside four other teenagers with the same gift. When their initial search-and-rescue missions turned into more questionable thieving operations, the teens escaped, but by the opening of Real Life they have been recaptured and are now back inside The Project. The missions now become more dangerous, involving Nicky in direct confrontation with terrorists. But the more interesting territory explored in Real Life is the fact that Nicky is gradually allowed to spend time outside the confines of The Project and join a local swim team.

At first the story seems in danger of being trivialised by this plot development, and the cover picture – depicting a girl wearing a swim cap – is somewhat misleading in drawing attention to Nicky as a swimmer. But her daily swims are relevant as a device to remind the reader of the need for a real life, one that cannot be attained within the X-Men style institution of The Project, but only in doing what every teenager should have the choice of doing: joining a sports team.

The trilogy ends with an explosive bang and is concluded in a way that ties up most loose ends, but also severs all connections with The Project and every character of the trilogy. Nicky’s adventure is over, but it leaves her and the reader in somewhat of a void, and it is difficult to know how to feel about this.

Real Life is entirely action- and plot-driven, and being written in present tense makes the story concerned only with the action at hand. Between swimming, Project missions and being undecided about two boys, there is unfortunately little exploration of the deeper issues that might arise out of Nicky’s situation: her parents have purportedly been killed by The Project, she is far away from home, she discovers new aspects to her power, and she feels disconnected from her peers.

But Nicky’s main concerns rarely stray beyond the next swim, mission or breakfast. All of this makes Real Life an action adventure that one reads like one watches a TV programme: we want to find out what happens, but we watch it from a detached distance.

Phyllis Johnston provides quite a different experience in her novel Brother Sister Soldier Cousin, set in rural New Zealand in 1943 against the backdrop of WWII and the threat of a Japanese invasion. Here the voice and character of 13-year-old Helen drive the story.

The two main strands of the plot are the on-and-off absence of Helen’s soldier brother, and her discovery that her unmarried aunt is in fact her biological mother. While the latter issue throws her into an understandable crisis of identity, the communal worry over her brother keeps drawing her back into a sense of belonging within the family.

The relevance of every event in this novel is defined by Helen’s thoughts and reactions. The disappearance of a souvenir camel is felt as acutely as the disappearance of her brother, and the pain over her horse’s death is paralleled with mourning the loss of her father. In stripping Helen of almost every comfort she has – her best friend, her brother, her father, her horse, and even the direct family relationship with her mother and siblings – Johnston plays out the effects of war in front of our very eyes.

Noticeably, this is not merely a story of loss, but one defined by the absence of men and the hardship that results for the women who remain. Even the modern reader cannot but feel a sense of relief when a male neighbour comes to take charge, providing a temporary sense of patriarchal security.

In one memorable image Helen describes walking with her mother, her aunt and her sister, “two by two, like animals going into Noah’s Ark, only we were all females”. This astonishing simile goes to the heart of the story: women necessarily seek solace with each other as they get on with the business of life; but in a world defined by the absence of men, their lives seem sterile and the future fruitless. It is one of many elegant and meaningful uses of imagery employed by Johnston to portray a story full of personality and heart. And since much of the book parallels Helen’s story with the war in a kind of pathetic fallacy, the ending happily combines the subsiding Japanese threat with Helen being freed of family constraints in order to begin a more positive future. This is truly a coming-of-age story at its best.

Each of these books has something to commend it to the young reader, depending on their taste and appetite. Copper Top is a smorgasbord for the senses: we hear Copper Top’s melodic Irish accent, we smell the New Zealand forest and we feel the sandflies. Real Life is the dessert rounding off a three-course trilogy; readers who liked the starter and the main will undoubtedly enjoy the pudding. Brother Sister Soldier Cousin is the most delectable dish on this menu. It is a hearty story, balanced in plot and character, flavoursome in its setting and atmosphere, and wholly nourishing for heart and mind. My compliments to the chefs.


Tatjana Schaefer teaches in the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington.


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