Tag Archives: values

Far From Home – Na’ima B Robert

Far From HomeFar From Home – Na’ima B Robert (2011)

This book was given to me to read by a student in one of my English classes.

It is a challenging read.  The author initially introduces us to Tariro, daughter of the Baobab.  Tariro tells the stories of her people, and the simple explanations given really help to develop an empathy in the reader.  She explains, in her uncle’s voice

‘Now, Lobengula, son of Mzilikazi, king of the Ndebele, had grown concerned about all these varungu – the Boers, the Portuguese, the British – bothering him, wanting him to let them look for gold and other minerals in his territory. But, because he trusted the British Queen’s representative, he finally agreed to sign a document called the Rudd Concession, giving the mining rights they wanted.’

Cecil John Rhodes was granted a charter by Queen Victoria, allowing him to run the country on behalf of Britain. As Tariro quite rightly asks,

‘Who gave her the authority to decide our fate?’ I asked.  ‘We have never seen her.  We did not accept her as our queen.

The removals of the Karanga people, Tariro’s people, from the land, are violent and merciless.  Tariro and her family suffer terribly, with the loss of many people and the removal to poor land with no rights to cut down trees, or to irrigate.  And the girls sent to fetch water from the river live in constant danger of attack from the white men.  (In Maori, a karanga is a spiritual call to welcome, or summon, the manuhiri – visitors – on to a Marae.  It is a thread between the two women, one tangata whenua and one manuhiri, calling through the passages of time.  This felt really appropriate to me,as this novel is so much about the calls of woman to woman, and identity through time and place).  A good friend of mine who speaks Shona, tells me that Maori and Shona languages have unexpected connection.

Tariro suffers such an attack, and the result is a daughter, Tawona.  Despite her hatred of the man, Ian Watson, Tariro loves her daughter, and brings her up in the Karanga way, as best she can, suffering the deprivations that they do.

However, as time passes, discontent grows, and the African National Congress grows and develops.  The Karanga, and other displaced African people, build an army and start to reclaim their land.  This is also the time of Robert Mugabe.  Tariro becomes involved and fights in the battles as a soldier.  This is an historic time, where the people of Zimbabwe not only reclaim their land but also reclaim their name.

About two thirds of the way through the novel, we are introduced to Katie, the white and legitimate daughter of Ian Watson, and the White African version of events is told.  To be fair, it is difficult for the reader to develop a lot of empathy with Katie and her family.  Our first and loyal affiliation is to the family we know and love already, who were so badly treated by her white ancestors and by her father.  Racism is conveyed very effectively, especially in moments where Katie herself acts in ways that reflect her upbringing, rather than what she learns.  I guess this could be uncomfortable reading for some, but it reflects very much a perspective that was real.  What the author attempts to do is to help us understand why Katie might feel that she has had her heritage ripped away from her.  She is not successful in this.  But I did find myself thinking that it wasn’t Katie’s fault she was born into the family and the place that she was.

This novel demands that the reader asks some really difficult questions of themselves and their lives.  The author bravely attempts to present two sides of a story that she cannot really feel in her heart.  While this is courageous, I think ultimately Katie as a character fails.  She is relatively two-dimensional compared to Tariro or Tawona.  I’m not sure that is entirely fair, but it is a brave attempt to acknowledge the possibility of another perspective to this story.

This is a very well written book that taught me much about the recent history of Zimbabwe.  I will be asking my friend who grew up in Zimbabwe, to read it and tell me his view.

Because of the violent acts that happen within the story, I feel this is probably a Young Adult / Adult novel.  I would rate it a 4/5 stars.

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Filed under Children 12+, Four stars, Historical, Young Adult

Into the River – Ted Dawe – R14

Into the RiverM – Readers 15+, Classified R14

Winner Young Adult Category, and Overall Winner, NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, 2013

It is illegal for this book to be sold to children under 14 years of age.

This book is the prequel to Ted Dawe’s Thunder Road (2003), which won both the Young Adult and Best First Book awards in the 2004 NZ Children’s Book Awards.  Having read ‘Into the River’, I am very keen to read ‘Thunder Road’.  One of the things about a prequel is that it is always leading to a thoroughly told beginning, and so there is an inevitability to the story. Even though I haven’t read Thunder Road, I could really feel the inexorable drive of this story.  I think this is a real strength of the book.

Preview of Into the River

The story beings with young Te Arepa and his best friend Wiremu eeling.  This is beautifully written, with the friendship between Wiremu and Te Arepa having real legs.  The dialogue and interaction have a truth to them that draws the reader ‘Into the River’ with them, as they catch a monster eel:

He’s a monster!’

‘He’s the taniwha of the river!’

The eel made his leisurely way downstream, the hook projecting from the side of his mouth.  The boys trotted along, keeping pace.  After fifty metres, the river changed course and crossed a shallow ridge of river boulders.

‘We can get him when he crosses the rocks,’ yelled Wiremu.

As if it heard, the eel immediately made for the bank.  It nuzzled its way into the reeds immediately above the rapids.

Now’s our chance,’ said Te Arepa.  ‘We might be able to drag him over to the rocks.’

They let the line go slack and ran to where it was shallow enough to cross.  Once they were halfway across, they began to pull together.  At first it seemed pointless.  Nothing would shift this monster.  But then his head appeared and he made a dash straight past them over the rushing rocks.’

However, as the back of the book says:

‘Some rivers should not be swum in.  Some rivers hold secrets that can never be told.

When Te Arepa Santos is dragged into the river by a giant eel, something happens that will change the course of his whole life.  The boy who struggles to the bank is not the same one who plunged in, moments earlier.  He has brushed against the spirit world, and there is a price to be paid; an utu to be exacted.’

As you may have noticed, Te Arepa’s last name is Spanish.  The telling of the story of Diego, the ancestor who gave Te Arepa his last name, is a fantastically wrought tale told over three nights to Te Arepa and his younger sister Rawinia, by their grandfather, Ra.  All of this tale weaving lulls you into a false sense of security.  You feel, as a reader that, when Te Arepa is offered a place at an elite Auckland Boarding School for boys, he has the strength to cope and to hold on to who he is.

But it doesn’t quite work like that.

As Paikea drives him to Auckland in her courier van, Te Arepa becomes transfixed with her driving – the way that she seems at one with the vehicle.  He has his first lesson (despite being 13 years old).  At school, he is given a new name – Devon – and makes he friends with the worldly and world weary Steph, athlete and petrol-head Mitch, and farm boy Wingnut.  Progressively, Devon separates himself from everything that identifies him as Maori, because of the consistent and persistent bullying from the older boys and even the masters.  His first year at school reveals some cracks, but his second year is relentless.

While there may seem to be some similarities between ‘Snakes and Ladders’ (another NZ Post Children’s Book Awards nominee) and ‘Into the River’ (small town boy is moved to elite Auckland boarding school, where he needs to learn to deal with the super rich and the bullies, as well as the eccentricities of elite boarding school life) in reality, there are few.  This tale is an absorbing, relentless, addictive read.  The characters are well drawn and three dimensional  – although not always likeable.  There is an inevitability to the story that feels real, even though you don’t want it to be that way.

This book is definitely 14+ in my view, as sex, drugs, alcohol etc feature relatively prominently – but not gratuitously (at least most of the time…it does occasionally slip into 14yr old fantasyland…IMO)  Recommended.  4/5 stars.

Read more about Ted Dawe here:

Ted Dawe

Read another review of Into the River here:

Bobs Books Blog

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Filed under Four stars, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Ted Dawe, YA 14+

My Brother’s War – David Hill

Dulce et decorum est

‘This item is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © [Copyright notice]’.

    My brother's War

So, I finished on Anzac Day, which seemed appropriate – and here are my thoughts.

I did really like this book.  Quite a lot. If I could give a 4.5…..

This book is an amazing journey.  Set in New Zealand, in 1917, it is the story of two brothers, and the choices they make once the  1916 Conscription Law is passed.  Older brother, William, enlists and younger brother, Edmund, is a conscientious objector.  (After two years of having their young men go to war, never to return, there were plentiful objectors to conscription, as can be seen in this  Te Ara photo and article ) Because of their disagreement, the two brothers have not spoken for over a year.

William is treated as a hero by many of the townsfolk, and Edmund as a coward – although there are people along the way who quietly sympathise with his view and support him.  Their mother and sister, left at home, have to cope with this view of the boys, and there are a few allusions to how difficult this could be, at times.

There are seven sections to the book: At First, Before Sailing, On Ship, Getting Ready, The Trenches, First Attack, Second Attack.  The boys’ parallel journeys are told in each section both with an authorial bird’s eye view from each character, and through letters from Edmund and William, home.

Something I really did like about the book was the length of time it took for the characters to begin to question their views about wars and the army.  There’s no sudden revelation, and in the end there is not one right view.

In the trenches, Edmund has been refusing to obey any army commands.  The trouble is, it is hard to decide what is a command and what is humanity and compassion.  Edmund, unlike Archie, decides that he will choose to be humane and help the stretcher bearers bring in the wounded from No Man’s Land.   One of the men asks Edmund which ‘lot’ he is with:

Edmund shook his head. “I’m a conscientious objector.  The army put this uniform on me.” The soldier who’d offered him the cigarette glared. “So why are you doing this, if you’ve got such high and might ideas about war?”

“My ideas aren’t high and mighty,” Edmund told him. “They’re just mine. And I’m doing this to try and save lives, instead of destroying them.” The man who’d challenged him was silent. 

What a time to be having a discussion like this, Edmund thought.  He almost laughed, and felt a shudder run through his aching body.  He was close to breaking point.  he and most of the others around him.  How much more of this could a human being stand?

The descriptions of the trenches and life in the army for both William and Edmund are heartbreakingly realistic.  Anyone who has read Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks – will understand the true horror of the Battle of the Somme.  And, of course it brought to mind ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ – Wilfred Owen.

David Hill says he was inspired to write this book after reading ‘We Will Not Cease’ – Archibald Baxter.  I feel the need to go and read that now.

This book will provoke some intense discussion in classrooms, no doubt, alongside the opportunity to really do some research into those who went to war, or those who stayed behind, using primary source and secondary source material.  I know it will enhance the understanding of ANZAC day for many of the people who read it, as well as encouraging some critical and reflective thinking about war.

anzac poppies

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Filed under Children 10+, Children 12+, Four stars, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Uncategorized

Half Brother – Kenneth Oppel

Last year I bought a book called ‘The Discursive Mind’, which argued that the difference between humans and animals is, essentially, the ability to communicate. In parts, it talked about the experiments done with sign language and chimps in the 70’s, and the difference between speech and communication.  While it was a fantastic book, and challenged me to really think, ‘Half Brother’ asked me to do the same kind of thinking, without the need for ‘expert language’, wrapped in a story that progressively asks harder and harder questions.

Half Brother
Half Brother worried me for a start.  I felt the title was …well… twee.  I worried that it would be yet another story about the special love between a boy and his pet, that ended happily ever after.  I really worried that the parents were too two dimensional, and stereotypical.  I worried that we would get so caught up in the adolescent relationship thing that it would become a boy meets girl, boy learns to be in the right group, kind of story.  I worried that Mom would never complete her PhD.  I worried that Peter would lead Ben astray.  I worried so much, I couldn’t put  the book down.  Most of all I kept worrying for Zan.  It seemed to become less and less likely that there could be any kind of solution for Zan that was believable, ethical, hopeful or humane.

Ben is an only child. He is 13 years old.  His father is a researcher, in behavioural science, in the 1970s.  Which, of course, should ring some alarm bells.  Mom is also a researcher, but has put aside her study for now, or at least is trying to work it around family and all.  One day, Ben’s parents bring home Zan, an eight day old chimpanzee.
And I have to say, that despite all my maternal worrying for everyone and everything in the book, it grew up, and walked and talked and learned and ended in the most satisfying way it could; a finely tuned orchestration of events that didn’t excuse wrong decisions, but did pay some kind of recompense, imperfectly, as it is in real life.

I highly recommend this book.  It has so much to it that it deserves more than one read.  And it deserves a bit of background reading to learn about the behavioural scientists it talks about, animal experimentation, and chimpanzees.  Also, gender equality! 😉

 

For some information on the kind of research Ben’s father was undertaking, go here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/nov/24/can-chimps-converse-exchange/?pagination=false

To learn more about Kenneth Oppel, the writer, go here:  http://www.kennethoppel.ca/pages/biography.shtml

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Filed under Children 12+, humour