New seeds for old, Kathryn Walls

The Mijo Tree
Janet Frame (Deidre Copeland illus)
Penguin, $25.00,
ISBN 9780143569428

A Book is a Book
Jenny Bornholdt (Sarah Wilkins illus)
Gecko Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781877579929

Joy Cowley
Gecko Press, $20.00,
ISBN 9781977579462

Janet Frame sent the typescript of The Mijo Tree to her friend John Money in 1957, retaining a carbon copy for herself. But she made no effort to publish it. In an afterword to the present first edition, the author’s niece and literary executor, Pamela Gordon, intimates that this was because Frame’s story deals with the deeply personal subject of her first serious love affair, which had taken place in Ibiza in 1956. Gordon’s interpretation of the work carries a degree of conviction. But her interpretation of Frame’s motive for not seeking publication is surely open to question, especially in the light of the self-exposure that had already characterised Frame’s published fiction. Frame may have had her doubts about the merits of her fable, or about its commercial viability.

Whatever the case, her story of the seed who succeeds in her ambition to live on a cliff face certainly rewards attention. It is an allegory of a certain kind of life ‒ and one cannot but think of the life of Frame herself, who had “uprooted” herself in 1956 in order to embrace a quasi-bohemian existence abroad. In so far as it is about romantic love, the story tells how the wilful (or, from another point of view, those unconstrained by conventional propriety) begin by being “carried away”, only to end up being exploited by vain philanderers. The philanderer in Frame’s fable is a goat (!). The heroine is not the only character to learn that to love is to suffer. The wind, the first lover of the Mijo seed, becomes the literal and metaphorical vehicle of her ambition at the cost of his own life. If, as Gordon suggests, Frame’s fable is drawn quite directly from personal experience (and if the uncaring Ibizan lover is the goat), who is the wind? Could it be that ruthless goat and gentle wind project different experiences of the same person?

But one cannot do justice to the possible (and not necessarily personal) implications of Frame’s actually quite convoluted plot in the short space of a review. The cynicism of the story’s resolution is foreshadowed in microcosm at various points throughout, as when the mother tree envisages her future death as a metamorphosis (which is, in her benightedly complacent view, glorious) into “a pretty coffin with silver handles”. Frame supplies a narrator who dispenses quaint pieces of misinformation (telling us, for example, that baby seeds are talkative ‒ “as all new seeds are”) in the manner of writers for little children. But the work is stylistically flexible and tonally ambiguous. In a striking passage, reminiscent in its technique and symbolism of the paintings of Chagall, the mother tree tells her rebellious daughter that if she were to remain home, she would grow into a “tall and beautiful” tree: “All the birds will fly to you. The canaries will butter up your leaves, and the bats flap like silk stockings in your hair.”

This hard-backed pocket-sized volume has been elegantly designed by Sarah Healey. I remain in two minds about the illustrations, however. These consist, for the most part, of a single drawing that frames the text (which, though quite short ‒ around 4000 words ‒ is spun out over 86 pages). Deidre Copeland’s monochromatic pattern of twisting branches, trunks, and roots (scarcely relieved by seeds, a single flower, a bee) is powerful in itself, but it is also ‒ by the same token ‒ oppressive. It tells us that the story is “dark” before we are allowed to discover this for ourselves.

A Book is a Book is, like The Mijo Tree, a well-designed small volume. Unlike Frame, however, Jenny Bornholdt exploits the “school reader” style in a genuine effort to entertain children. Even so, the almost hypnotic simplicity of much of her prose is utterly at odds with her content, which tends to defy reason. In Bornholdt’s lexicon, “because” functions as in riddles. Her title pretends to define, but reveals nothing. In the prose poems that follow, books are sometimes eminently physical, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes both. Most consistently, however, they are represented in conjunction with their child readers ‒ who are described (and, thanks to the illustrations, seen) in possession of their books, and possessed by them. The same child readers also abuse them and get rid of them: “If you really don’t like a book,” we are told, “you can put it in the compost.” I found this suggestion refreshing in what might in some hands have been a saccharine celebration of “reading” vaguely defined. Authors are not forgotten. Indeed, at the very centre of A Book is a Book it is explained that “[s]ome books are small because / some writers are very tired”. I take it from the acknowledgements that this reliable piece of information was contributed by Carlo, the author’s son.

The book is copiously illustrated, and Sarah Wilkins’s full-colour illustrations are superb. Lightly handled and full of vitality, they capture Bornholdt’s general intent while refusing to be limited by her text. “If you need to get around your room without touching the floor,” writes Bornholdt (in her charmingly dead-pan way), “books are good.” But the room in Wilkins’s illustration is flooded, and a pyjama-clad child is using the books floating on the rising (not to mention crocodile-infested) waters as rafts. Wilkins has invented an emergency scenario in which one might really, as Bornholdt puts it, “need” to get around a room without touching the floor. A Book is a Book was published by Gecko Press in conjunction with the Whitireia publishing programme, which is celebrating its 20th year.

With Dunger, Joy Cowley takes us into straightforwardly realistic territory. This is a chapter-book designed to appeal to 10-year-old boys and girls. The unimpeachable moral of Cowley’s story is that children should value their grandparents. That Cowley is herself not only a grandmother, but a great-grandmother, comes as no surprise. What might be described as the novel’s perspective in favour of the old is, however, disguised by its adoption, technically, of the points of view of its two child-protagonists, the 11-year-old William and his 14-year-old sister, Melissa. In alternate chapters, they record their disgruntlement with each other, with their parents (who have forced them to spend part of their summer holidays helping their grandparents in their isolated bach), and ‒ most particularly ‒ with the said grandparents, who are “out of touch” in more ways than one.

Cowley uses her chosen narrative device to great comic effect. No one is spared, least of all the grandparents, who are as decrepit as their bach. Inevitably, however, the children’s always amusing scoffing gives way to gratitude, compassion and respect. The story is not lacking in plot development. The grandfather is concussed in a fall, and William and Melissa respond admirably to the crisis, which ‒ intimating mortality as it does ‒ hastens and intensifies their already incipient change of attitudes. The Marlborough Sounds (in all weathers) are vividly evoked through the children’s unpretentiously worded impressions, as are the viscerally satisfying processes of scone- and bread-making, fishing, and driving (the car in question being grandfather’s eponymous “dunger”). The fine arts are also represented. Once hippies, the grandparents are able to teach William and Melissa to play the guitar, and the children love this.

But Cowley’s book, warm-hearted and life-affirming though it is, eschews sentimentality. It is one thing to face up to the physical decline of the aged, as Cowley, through the eyes of her young protagonists, certainly does. It is another to face up to the chronic irritability and impatience that can go along with this. William and Melissa are disturbed by the insults traded between their grandparents. However, as the grandmother points out to a romantically inclined Melissa, their apparent mutual contempt only mirrors that which William and Melissa have expressed towards each other (and which has amused the reader from the beginning of the book). It is, at least in part, a function of the security of their relationship. Thus, while Dunger is entertainingly written and neatly structured, it is also ‒ in what comes across as a natural and unforced way ‒ thematically challenging.


Kathryn Walls is a professor in the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington and was a co-editor of A Made-Up Place: New Zealand in Young Adult Fiction (2011).


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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review
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