The Thrill of Falling
Recently, with the death of Margaret Mahy, New Zealand mourned the loss of one of its best-known writers for children. We can take comfort, however, from the fact that one of our most indefatigable writers for adolescents is still in full swing. In The Thrill of Falling, his collection of five longish short stories and one novella, Witi Ihimaera taps unerringly into the teenage psyche, and plays up to all those things that will appeal most to kids.
“Maggie Dawn”, the first story in the book, establishes the style. Maggie is a “calorifically challenged” 15-year-old Maori living in a council flat with her old granny, who wastes benefit money on the pokies. Maggie still “feels her heart catch with love” when she sees her Mum, but she can’t live with her Mum, who has had multiple kids by different fathers. Mum’s current boyfriend is a violent dope-peddling thug. Maggie is exploited. She’s the eldest, so she has to look after all her younger brothers and sisters while Mum dopes her life away. But Maggie has a heart of gold. She works to earn a meagre income. She strives to increase her word power. She treats the littler kids to a movie. She teaches them how to survive in a cruel world. She also shows them how to pay their respects on a marae. Frankly, Maggie is the dream big sister whom all neglected children would love to have.
This could begin to sound like hard social realism, but with a sure touch Ihimaera steers it towards the “inspirational” style which gives so much comfort to 15-year-olds. Maggie is the role model that kids crave. Emphasising her status as a role model, Ihimaera plants improving lessons in the text. So we are told of Maggie that
most of her friends …. avoided the public library, but she knew that [high-school] would only get her so far. If she wanted to go further, she’d have to help herself up the ladder …. Maggie had also discovered that the library had some really cool self-help shit.
Adults may find it a teeny bit patronising that Ihimaera mimics kidspeak and calls books “cool shit”. But this is the way to catch the kids’ attention and maybe make them give a passing thought to books and reading. The story has further attractions for younger teens with a punch-up scene and a comic-cuts scene where a naughty kid runs around cutting off things with scissors.
“Maggie Dawn” is the very model of a public-spirited story. While kids might enjoy reading it on their own, it would probably serve its purpose best if it were read with a Year 10 or Year 11 class, especially if the teacher were prepared to point out the lessons of Having a Dream, and Caring for
Others and Believing in Yourself.
As in the opening story, so in the others in this collection, Ihimaera makes sure that he never wanders outside an adolescent understanding. He carefully explains all cultural references for kids who would otherwise not get them. For example the second story, “We’ll Always Have Paris”, is a one-joke anecdote extended to 30 easy-to-understand pages. Aunty Lulu lives a fantasy life fed by old Hollywood movies (11 or 12 classic titles are name-checked). To get her to move out of a nursing home, the narrator has to act out a scene from one of the old movies. To make sure the kids get the joke as it is being set up, a whole page outlines and gives the relevant dialogue from a key scene in Casablanca. Though it will not necessarily appeal to all teens, the story will at least be understood by them.
Further showing his knack for appealing to a young audience, Ihimaera loads his stories with information and inspirational messages. For painless consumption, they are often disguised as dialogue or pieces of advice passed from one character to another. “One More Night” (adapted, say the notes, from a play which in turn was adapted from an earlier Ihimaera short story) has a promising idea. It alternates a narrative of Maori attempting to break into showbiz in London with an account of a Maori father moved into city industry, far from his ancestral roots. But when a polluted city beach is encountered, we get: “Sea. We’ve been unkind to you. We’ve poisoned the land and now we feed the poison into your waters. We’ve lost our aroha for you and our respect for life. Forgive us ….”
Such worthy ecological sentiments are even more in evidence in the set-piece speeches of “Orbis Terrarium”. Not only does an old woman remember her father neatly explaining Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest to her, but she gets lectured by a wise old Galapagos turtle on the extinction of species and on how human beings are the worst predators. Again, this would work very well in a classroom with a teacher prepared to go over the lessons about conservation and anthropocentrism and respect for other life forms.
Sometimes Ihimaera teases his young readers a little. The collection’s novella “The Thrill of Falling” does an imaginative reconstruction of how Maori might have quizzed the Tahitian navigator Tupaea as he made his first landfall with Captain Cook: “But who are these red and white strangers who have arrived with you? Why are they so transgressive of Maori custom, not responding to our challenge by acknowledging our rangatiratanga and instead, coming onto our land without our permission?” Ihimaera’s wordplay here is very clever. The use of the word “transgressive” is brilliant, clearly intended to initiate teenagers into early 21st-century cultural discourse. The whole speech, ascribed to 18th-century Maori, works well as a sly parody of all improbable historical reconstructions.
In similarly playful mood, the author doesn’t hesitate to use the techniques of old-time melodrama. In “One More Night” a wife just happens to overhear her husband, severely depressed and speaking to himself, say “How am I going to tell my angel about my job? She’s already got enough trouble looking after baby.” Characters so neatly overhearing such self-revelatory monologue ‒ this is a beautiful piece of nostalgic artifice and can still work very well with young teens.
What crowns Ihimaera’s ability to tap into the teenage mindset, however, is his sure instinct for wish-fulfilment fantasy. The last two pages of “One More Night” are a truly wonderful example, distilling a kid’s dreams of rock-star success. Even more in this territory is the whole structure of the novella “The Thrill of Falling”. Not only is the hero and narrator a descendant of Tupaea, and therefore “The Chosen One” (like the little girl in The Whale Rider); but after beginning as an asthmatic weakling, he buffs up beautifully once he hits the gym in Wellington; when he returns to his home town on the East Coast, he is able to out-bully the bullies who once picked on him; and he winds up as an expert gymnast with an international audience gasping at him and admiring him as his rope act recapitulates the entire history of Polynesian civilisation in the Pacific. This really is the perfect piece of wish-fulfilment fantasy for the average teenage boy – doing something daring, having a Serious Social Mission, being the Chosen One, and above all being the admired centre of attention. It is hard to imagine a boy wishing for more
I am glad that the story “Purity of Ice” is included in this collection. It is frankly a genre piece – a science-fiction story about a globally burnt world. Operating out of Fiordland, a consortium of helicopter pilots captures rogue icebergs to provide fresh water for parched populations. In a book for adolescents, it is good to have at least one story which is not message-heavy. Knowing what kids watch in multiplexes, Ihimaera deliberately creates dialogue like a very bad action movie and makes the references to Moby Dick easy and obvious ones.
I have only one misgiving about this collection. When writing for teenagers, it is sometimes necessary to include adult-seeming material so that they can feel they are reading something for grown-ups. Perhaps Ihimaera overdoes such interpolations on a couple of occasions. The reference to “f**k buddies” in “Purity of Ice” could have been excised, and one episode in “Maggie Dawn” is a bit ropey (cocaine-snorting Mum sitting on a dunny seat and being pissed on by her latest boyfriend). But it’s possible that the target audience have seen worse things on reality TV, and this shouldn’t detract from the collection’s classroom appeal.
Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian, poet and reviewer who blogs about books on Reid’s Reader.