The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 6 (September 2, 1935)
A Great New Zealand Novel…. — “The Little Country.” — By John Guthrie — A Book in which We Discover Ourselves
A Great New Zealand Novel….
“The Little Country.”
By John Guthrie
A Book in which We Discover Ourselves.
(Written for the “New Zealand Railways Magazine” by O. N. Gillespie.)
I had all the feelings of a successful explorer who has reached his goal, as I read through this delightful book. I understand now, as I write this review, some of the feelings of Mr. J. T. Thompson, when, on 13th July, 1861, he penned his official report on the goldfields of Central Otago.
Here is a novel which is of the essence of New Zealand, the very fabric of our daily lives and doings, of our outlook and our thought. The author uses a very large canvas, and on it, with light, easy but sure strokes, he paints in for us scores of people whom we know well. It is an authentic picture of the New Zealand “scene,” containing hundreds of subtle touches that will show the reader living abroad, the differences that mark our life here.
That is the magical new quality of this work of art.
Inclined to be complacent about our prowess in sport and kindred matters, New Zealanders are possibly unduly self-deprecatory about their literary achievement. When we lay claim to world figures, most of us stop at Katherine Mansfield and Lord Rutherford. But the truth is that we have produced an astonishingly large number of writers known all over the world. Our particular talent seems to have lain in the making of text-books which are, at the same time, great literature—works of scientific authority which are written in limpid, imaginative, and beautiful prose. I will not weary you with the long list of New Zealanders who have won world honours in this sphere, but I want to stress the point that the combination of these qualities is a rare one. I believe, though, that an ingredient which makes for this phenomenon is that most New Zealanders can write, and write well.
Still, our distinctive New Zealand novel has been a long time arriving, and the reason is not hard to discover.
We are simply a million and a half Britishers living a month's travel from London. Owing to the unique nature of our colonisation, with its principle of rigid selection of the settlers, communication with the “Old Land” has been continuous and uninterrupted from the earliest beginnings. Everything British, from the last scientific work to the latest fashion fad, has been in our country by first steamer. No effective dilution of alien blood ever took place. Our percentage of Anglo Saxon stock is the highest in the world. Further, the country thus settled was the nearest in configuration and climate, and in the smallest detail of its soil constituents, to the British Isles. This compulsion upon us of things English, this passionate love of our British heritage of tradition and sentiment, this adoration of “Home” may be splendid and admirable, but it invests us with a certain narrowness, and it particularly limits the scope of the story-teller. Novels of New Zealand life, many of them, might have been written in Leicester, Lurgan, or Leeds.
Still, our little land has developed differences and with the eye of genius, “John Guthrie,” or rather Mr. John Brodie, discerns them.
Mr. Brodie is a journalist, a well-known Rugby player, and a typical New Zealander who has worked in many places, and has looked at life in many contrasting localities. This copious, full, and harmonious novel, is an astonishing first effort, and it is little wonder that the London reviewers are treating it as a note-worthy contribution to letters. I do not remember a better review than is given this book by the usually caustic Ralph Strauss.
The “cast” is enormous, but every portrayal is a gem of observation, lit with rich humour, and tender sympathy.
The difficulty of writing about folks in so small a community has made him coin names for his “locations” but Auckbourne, Tem, and St. Christopher are easily recognisable, as is Paradise Bay, where the story opens. The description of the Svon as it rambles through St. Christopher is a prose poem of very great beauty and power, and the two characters that live there, two gentle old maiden aunts, are in a perfect setting and wholly adorable. There is there, too, a rich figure of roguery in the Reverend James Silvering, who is affording them the opportunity of subscribing towards the fund for building his “Temple of Eternal Light.”
In the painstaking search for something to fault, some of our critics find the plot too thin. It is a rambling story rather on the lines of “Mr. Finchley Discovers His England.” It rivals the latter great work in its joy of living. So living are the people one meets, so believable are the happenings, that interest never flags for one instant in the doings of the characters.
Just by way of special mention there is the jubilee of Tem when its native-born assemble from all over the Dominion to celebrate. A gale of laughter blows through this episode, and as in all the best of literature there are moments of tears. The court case where the shifty Mayor proceeds for damages against the lad who fell on him from the gallery, the borough council intrigue to hold up a subdivision of sections, the mountaineering trip, and the notable description of the Maori tangi, are good things among a host of others.
Mr. Brodie must continue this fine work, and one obvious way in which we can all help that necessary and laudable objective is to read, buy, and praise his book. If you fulfil the first piece of advice here you will comply with the other two. I tender my warm congratulations to Mr. Brodie for an achievement which will give lustre to the name of New Zealand.
The novel carries, by the way, the imprimatur of Mr. L. A. G. Strong, who selected it for publication by the famous London publishing house of Thomas Nelson and Sons.