Why this book: While travelling in New Zealand, this book was recommended by a salesman at a bookstore and one of my NOLS colleagues with whom I was hiking.
Summary in 4 sentences: This is short novelized version of an old Maori tale, transposed onto a Maori village in modern times (1980s), focussing on a young girl born as granddaughter to the Maori chief of that village. The village and the Maori tribe are at a key crossroads in their history, and the grandfather chieftain is upset that the young girl isn’t the grandson whom he had hoped to groom to help lead the village and tribe into the future. A strong connection to whales had been integral to the history and mythology of this tribe and the chieftain believed that preserving this connection to whales would be key to the village’s future survival. The granddaughter eventually is able to help rebuild the village’s positive relationship to whales, and thereby serve as a catalyst to positive change in the culture and values of the community.
My impressions: The Whale Rider is a short enjoyable read that tells a tale about how the Maori village of Whangara on the North Island of New Zealand struggles to hold on to its values and traditions in the late 20th century. It nicely complements Come Ashore and We will Kill You and Eat You All as background and insights into Maori culture and values in the 20th century.
The Whale Rider is something of a modern fairy tale, with many references to Maori legends and mythology associated with the origins of the Maoris as well as the origins of the village of Wharanga, where most of the novel takes place. The short passages from Maori mythology help to illuminate how the elders and the grandfather chieftain perceive themselves and their place in the world. The Whale Rider is written in the first person from the perspective of Rawiri, a young Maori man who is nephew to Kora Apurana, the village elder and chieftain of this tribe of Maori. The young man represents the youth and values of modern New Zealand while Kora Apurana seeks to preserve Maori traditions and values as the world around them changes.
The central character in the story is the young girl Kahu, Rawiri’s neice and Kora Apurana’s granddaughter. When Kahu was born, Kora Apurana was very disappointed she was not the grandson he had hoped for, since one of the Maori traditions he insists on preserving is that women have no place in performing the sacred and most important duties of the tribe. Throughout the story, Kora Apurana is bickering constantly with his outspoken wife, Nanny Flowers, a strong woman who holds the family together in a more traditional matriarchal manner, but who is not cowed by her husband’s position or authority. Nanny Flowers insists that beyond their traditional roles, women should also play key roles in deciding important issues of the community. Kora Apurana ignores her, ignores his granddaughter Kahu, and focuses on preparing the young men for the challenges that the village and tribe face in modern New Zealand. But as she grows older, Kahu’s special gifts and talents become apparent to everyone in the village, and she is a constant presence in the story. But Kora Apurana insists that as a girl, she cannot help address the difficult issues the village is dealing with.
The story digresses a bit when Rawiri, our young protagonist, leaves Wharanga to work in the big city of Sydney Australia, where he connects with other Moari as well as with men and women from other parts of the world, and we get perspectives on how young adults from small Maori villages respond to the temptations and distractions of the big city. When later he accepts work as a ranch hand for a British farmer in Papua New Guinea, he comes face to face with subtle and not-so-subtle racial prejudice and discrimination. Maori culture is very much built around home, family, and community, and experiencing racial prejudice inspires Rawiri to return to his roots and the simple pleasures of being with his boyhood pals, Nanny Flowers, Kora Apurana, Kahu and others in the village of Wharanga.
After he returns home, a mass whale beaching occurs and the villagers are reminded of their long ignored connection to whales. At this point a bit of magical realism creeps into the story, as the worlds of the mythological and mystical become enmeshed with our world of objective, consensual reality. Almost as expected, but perhaps in an unexpected manner, Kahu, with her heightened sensitivity to people, animals and the environment helps her village reconnect to whales and the world of their ancestors, and helps to tie present Maori realities to their mythological past in a rather fantastic final dramatic scene.
The author, himself a Maori, concludes The Whale Rider with a fascinating several page essay about his own past and how it influenced him to write this book, how it got published, and what has happened since it’s first edition.
The Whale Rider is a very well known book in New Zealand, and since it was made into a movie in 2002, it has become widely read internationally. There are a lot of Maori words and phrases in the story – the meanings to some of which are self-evident, and for others, there is a glossary in the back of the book. The Maori language and the Maori names might be a bit distracting to some, but I felt they enhanced my experience reading this book as a medium to help me better appreciate and understand Maori culture.
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