7 minute read
WORDS: ANNA KNOX
A History of New Zealand in 100 Objects
(Penguin) RRP $55
Christmas presents for the curious are sorted and so is a new way of looking at Aotearoa New Zealand’s past in this generously presented hardback volume by historian Jock Phillips ONZM.
A Solander Island sealskin purse; Helen Clark’s trousers; Māori Land March pou whenua; Chinese li-ding scales; Totara Estate killing knives; a Wairau Bar necklace; Chip and Rona Bailey’s typewriter; a crocodile jaw – these are eight of the 100 objects that together tell “a dramatic, full-of-life history for everyday New Zealanders”.
It’s interesting that Jock – a Harvard graduate, professor, Chief Historian at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage for 14 years and the founder of the Stout Research Centre – has authored a book presenting history through heritage objects that tell human stories.
It’s a light touch that doesn’t diminish the power or importance of the stories, and in some ways is more reflective of the way humans experience time and the past. More traditional accounts are vital, but it’s refreshing to come at history sideways, though still in a well-researched manner.
A photograph of each of the 100 objects is presented, along with a brief and lively story detailing the object’s origins, contexts and significance, as well as stories of the people who engaged with it.
Each story is arrived at differently, together spanning thousands of years and peering into the many diverse corners that make up our country’s past.
“Thank heavens for curious schoolboys!” begins the entry to number 5: ‘Monck’s Cave kurī’.
“You arrive at an unprepossessing house in suburban Miramar and are greeted by a guide with an American accent”, begins number 94, ‘King Théoden’s armour’.
Number 14, ‘Te Pahi’s medal’, begins: “The wind was howling, the rain was falling sideways, but this did not deter a halfdozen expatriate Māori from a spirited haka outside Sydney’s Intercontinental Hotel”.
Read cover to cover or – perhaps more fittingly – dipped into from time to time, it’s a delightful and highly informative book.
Come Back to Mona Vale: Life and Death in a Christchurch Mansion
(Otago University Press) RRP $40
It’s not easy to write an intimate history of your family for general consumption and do it graciously, but with Come Back to Mona Vale, Alexander has done it.
First published in 2021 and now in its second printing, this book showcases a deft, warm and vibrant writer. In outstandingly good prose, he sustains page-turning interest through the first two-thirds of the book simply by telling the tale of his well-known ‘rich-lister’ family, the Goughs, and their several homes – including the Mona Vale of the title.
Then just when you get comfortable (and quite attached to the family), the real action unfolds. The prose retains its eloquence, but the plot thickens like a good stew, and then darkens so much you may never look at Mona Vale the same way again.
Alexander’s family story is full of intrigue, and another writer would have pushed to use this as a hook. But Alexander has done what the best writers do: been true to himself and his story and told it his way. He takes us with him as he moves from childhood to adulthood via a growing awareness of his privilege – and its dark side.
Mona Vale is a well-known landmark to most South Islanders. Accessed via Fendalton Road, the house and its gardens have been publicly accessible since the late 1970s, currently with a café and parts of the home open for functions. However, Alexander takes you to places you could otherwise never access and tells you things about the house and its history you could never know in a walk-by.
For reasons that become clear as the story unfolds, it’s his grandparents’ home in Fendalton, not Mona Vale, that garners the most intimate descriptions. Alexander is a gifted writer of place, conjuring atmospheres and peculiarities, nooks and crannies, and the eras in which homes have been variously inhabited. His aunt’s eclectic lodgings in Cashmere are also brought to life in such a way that you feel you’ve been there for a cuppa.
An acknowledgement – even a sentence – however, of the tangata whenua context for Mona Vale and Christchurch, past and present, would have lent this astute physical evocation even better grounding.
Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant
(Cuba Press) RRP $37
In 1886 the General Grant, en route from Melbourne to London, was wrecked on the Auckland Islands and all but 15 of the 83 on board perished. Cristina vividly imagines the plight of Mrs Jewell – the narrator and the only woman amongst them – as she survives extremes of hunger, weather and desperation in the company of 14 men. The ship wasn’t carrying only passengers though, and the gold that went down with it is a scourge of the survivors and has lured many hopeful seekers since. Neither this lost piece of maritime heritage, nor its bullion, has ever been found.
The scene in which the ship goes down is devastating – and compelling – to read. Cristina is a seasoned sailor and a regular crew member on the Spirit of New Zealand, so she ‘knows the ropes’, and the horrors of a ship coming apart in the darkness of night come alive on the page.
So too does the astonishing cold of the Auckland Islands in winter experienced by the survivors, and the near starvation and other privations that follow, not the least of which is the challenge of simply getting along and behaving with decency. Not everyone measures up, and as the sole woman, Mrs Jewell feels this strain most acutely.
Having her new husband with her doesn’t seem to make things easier, and this strained – and strange – relationship is the novel’s beating heart. It thumps all the more when Mrs Jewell is drawn to Teer, a giant Irishman who holds the group together, seeing to the clubbing of seals for food, fat and skins, and maintaining sanity.
The novel is meticulously researched and rigorous in nautical and historical detail. Occasionally this is overworked, but the lyrical rhythms of the writing quickly become like a familiar song you want to listen to over and over, eclipsing excess of detail.
A reader attuned to the problems of fictionalising history might ask whether Cristina has got inside the head of Mrs Jewell accurately when scant records of her existence remain. But it is beside the point in this novel when, as in Cristina’s excellent debut, Jerningham, the story is carried forward by its narrator’s keen observations of human behaviour more than by the story of the narrator herself.
Books are chosen for review in Heritage New Zealand magazine at the discretion of the Books Editor. Due to the volume of books received, we cannot guarantee the timing of any reviews that appear, and we are unable to return any copies submitted for review. Ngā mihi.
kurī: dog pou whenua: post markers of ownership tangata whenua: people of the land
Other titles of interest
A History of Saint Joseph’s Māori Girls’ College Malcolm Mulholland
(Huia) RRP $45 A comprehensive history of New Zealand’s secondoldest Māori girls’ boarding school, established 1868.
Downfall: The Destruction of Charles Mackay Paul Diamond
(Massey University Press) RRP $45 An account through a queer lens of mayor Charles Mackay’s shooting of poet D’Arcy Cresswell in 1920.
Heart of the City: The Story of Christchurch’s Controversial Cathedral Edmund Bohan
(Quentin Wilson) RRP $50 The story of the cathedral from its beginnings to destruction to resurrection.
Making Space: A History of New Zealand Women in Architecture Elizabeth Cox
(Massey University Press) RRP $65 A lush, ground-breaking new book on female architects in New Zealand and how they’ve shaped the field.
New Zealand’s Foreign Service: A History Ian McGibbon ONZM, Editor
(Massey University Press) RRP $60 A thorough and insightful history of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
One Hundred Havens: The Settlement of the Marlborough Sounds Helen Beaglehole
(Massey University Press) RRP $60 The story of the area as shaped by land, sea and people.
The Grandmothers of Pikitea Street: Ngā Kuia o te Tiriti o Pikitea Renisa Viraj Maki, illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson, translated
by Kanapu Rangitauira (Oratia) RRP $22.99 A touching story about diverse cultures in New Zealand bonding through food and stories across the generations.
Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How Women (Also) Built the World
Kate Mosse (Macmillan) RRP $39.99 Untold and undertold stories of women in history and why they were silenced, including Whina Cooper, Kate Sheppard, Iriaku Matiu Rātana, Jean Batten and other New Zealanders.
Wawata: Moon Dreaming
Hinemoa Elder (Penguin) RRP $30 Lessons for daily life and relationships guided by faces and phases of the moon.
We have one copy of Heart of the City: The Story of Christchurch’s Controversial Cathedral to give away. To enter the draw, send your name and address on the back of an envelope to Book Giveaways, Heritage New Zealand, PO Box 2629, Wellington 6140, before 31 December 2022. The winner of last issue’s book giveaway (Invisible: New Zealand’s History of Excluding Kiwi-Indians) was Rosemary Cole of Wellington.