Monty Soutar is an excellent historian, a fact that both makes and occasionally threatens to break his phenomenally popular debut novel, Kāwai – the first in a planned three-volume historical fiction series and the best-selling work of New Zealand fiction in 2022.
Kāwai is destined from birth to be a warrior leader who will avenge the massacre of his tribe, and the narrative more or less follows the story of his life up to this climactic battle, just as Pākehā, with the twin tomes of muskets and Christianity, make landfall.
The book’s greatest gift to readers, and to New Zealand fiction, is to draw a line – unbroken, clear, and full of a powerful and transformative understanding – between past and present, so that readers are vitally aware of how recent Kāwai’s story is, and how present it remains.
One senses the author’s aim – that the knowledge and narratives of Māori life pre-colonial times be shared – and, research-wise, he delivers outstandingly well on this. The book is full of tangible heritage details on structures, tools, clothing, waka, landscapes, moko and weapons. And tribal life is detailed so thoroughly that a reader knows, by the end, how to prepare for a chief’s wedding, snare a bird and train for battle (amongst other things).
This valuable transfer of knowledge sometimes comes at the cost of the prose and the character development, but what emerges is, by the end, a fiction with justifiably different priorities, delivered in a way that ultimately fits its material well.
This is an epic story that in the framework of the book is told (not written) by a kaumātua to his mokopuna over rēwena bread and tea; a story that tells the listener who he is.
The Queen’s Wife
RRP $40 (Penguin)
The pitchline for Joanne Drayton’s memoir is an instant hook: ‘A modern love story: whakapapa, archaeology, art and heartbreak’. The chess pieces on the front cover –two queens, one Māori, one Viking – carved by Joanne, are line and sinker, promising an absorbing story of how she and her partner, artist Sue Vincent Marshall, left heterosexual marriages, blended lives and families, and connected with their respective heritages. And it’s all set against a rich backdrop of art history, painting and museum collections.
The prelude immerses us in Joanne’s childhood, via her family’s unofficial archaeological digs in Banks Peninsula. This signals the beginnings of a complex investigation into the value of objects and the stories they can tell, while exploring questions of land, belonging and identity. “Artefacts,” she writes, “are carriers of magic. They sing songs to the dead and herald the future.”
What follows is a different hybrid. The core narrative is a well-paced account of Joanne’s passage from curate’s wife to lesbian academic and writer, and all the challenges this entailed for her in the 1990s.
It stands solidly on its own, and a reader might wonder why two other threads are interspersed: one a fictionalised imagining of the history of the famous medieval Lewis chess pieces, which reads like a novel outline; the other, ‘Sue’s whakapapa’, an account of Sue’s Māori ancestry, told by Joanne. Like the museums, galleries and sprawling homes the book visits, this can feel cluttered and messy with appropriation, as well as charming.
Two threads remain hidden. The chess pieces on the cover are not mentioned until the final pages, while ‘the Queen’s wife’, Sue, haunts the account silently, spoken for, and sometimes over – although her astonishing paintings, featured in the photo insert, tell their own story.
The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi
RRP $69.99 (BWB)
A calm, methodical voice belies the urgency of Ned Fletcher’s potentially radical thesis in this archival-based history of the English text of the Treaty of Waitangi –namely that the English and Māori versions of te Tiriti reconcile, contrary to the now well-entrenched narrative, and that the writers of the English version understood Māori ceding sovereignty as entirely consistent with Māori retaining rangatiratanga and self-government.
This understanding hinges on the meaning of the word ‘sovereignty’ in 1840, which the author shows beyond doubt did not mean an ‘indivisible’ power as it later came to. Rather it referred more specifically to control of foreign affairs, trade and some areas of justice, in a manner entirely consistent with plurality of government. The conclusion never states it, but this is a substantial basis from which to imagine co-governance.
The fight for indigenous rights has a history as long as the racism and greed that sought to dismiss Māori and deny their rights, and the book lays out some of that struggle from a British legal perspective.
It does this in extraordinary detail and accessible language, with the hook of a thriller (albeit a legal textbook one) in which you find yourself hoping the ‘good guys’ win. While it’s no spoiler to say they don’t – the ‘tsunami’ of unanticipated British immigration, the retreat of evangelical humanism and the rise of racism saw to that, as the book explains – the author’s research draws our attention to ‘a path not taken but that might have been’.
The personalities and opinions of the three framers of te Tiriti are foregrounded in the book, the most important of whom being James Stephen, the man who drafted Britain’s anti-slavery legislation – and nephew of abolitionist William Wilberforce.
Of Stephen, Ned Fletcher writes: “He was caring and idealistic without being sentimental or dogmatic”, which reads like a brief for a way forward. The same might be said of this book.
Other titles of interest
Akatarawa: A History of the Sawyers, Settlers and Schools 1870s–1980s
Peter O’Flaherty $75 (email firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy)
An endearing local history of the Akatarawa Valley drawing on the author’s 50-plus years in the timber industry, an economic mainstay of the area. Bush tramways, bulldozers and early log trucks feature, with hundreds of photos, maps and clippings, building a picture of how logging and railways have shaped this landscape.
Southern Celts: Stories from People of Irish and Scottish Descent in Aotearoa
Celine Kearney RRP $40 (Mary Egan Publishing)
New Zealanders with Scottish and Irish backgrounds –including writer Keri Hulme, master carver Malcolm Adams and boxer Charlie Dunn –reflect on how they live out their cultural connections.
Ōtari: Two Hundred Years of Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush
Bee Dawson, with photography by Chris Coad RRP $80 (Cuba Press)
The story of Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush, the only botanic garden dedicated solely to the collection and conservation of the plants unique to Aotearoa New Zealand. Colourful stories and botanical richness.
Comrade: Bill Andersen –A Communist, Workingclass Life
Cybèle Locke RRP $49.99 (BWB)
New biography of a leading figure in New Zealand’s trade union movement.
Histories of Hate: The Radical Right in Aotearoa New Zealand
Matthew Cunningham, Marinus La Rooij and Paul Spoonley (eds) RRP $50 (Otago University Press)
A cross-disciplinary, benchmark exploration of intolerance and extremism from British settlement to the present day.
Tiny Statements: A Social History of Aotearoa New Zealand in Badges
Stephanie Gibson and Claire Regnault RRP $40 (Te Papa Press)
A small book with a big heart delves into collections of over 1600 badges at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
Tatau: Samoan Tattoo, New Zealand Art, Global Culture
Sean Mallon, Nicholas Thomas and Peter Brunt, with photography by Mark Adams RRP $75 (Te Papa Press)
A revised and extended new edition, with a handsome large format and texts by distinguished scholars; a cultural treasure.
Pakeha Ta Moko: A History of the Europeans Traditionally Tattooed by Māori
Trevor Bentley RRP $39.99 (Upstart Press)
A hidden history of European men and women traditionally tattooed by Māori.
Death Among Good Men: First World War Reflections from New Zealand Major General Lindsay M Inglis
Nathalie Philippe RRP $69.99 HB (Bateman)
A poignant insight into everyday life in France during World War I, written by a down-to-earth Kiwi soldier who rose to the rank of Major General. n
We have one copy of Comrade: Bill Andersen – A Communist, Working-class Life 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 30 June 2023. The winner of last issue’s giveaway (The Fateful Voyage of the St Jean Baptiste) was Michelle Argyle, Invercargill.