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The Boy Colonists

IV. A Note on Form

IV. A Note on Form

The form of The Boy Colonists is primarily dedicated to evoking a sense of wonder in the reader. Implicit and explicit comparisons to British living are woven through Ernest’s descriptions of his environment and lifestyle, which emphasise New Zealand’s exciting ‘foreignness’. A passage which most keenly encapsulates this sense of wonder – for both the reader and for Ernest in his experiences – is the account of his fellow farmer Isaacs suffering the effects of poisonous tutu berries (a native New Zealand fungus). Since the poisonous plant was new for Ernest, naturally so was the farmer’s reaction. The passage is both clinical and excited in tone, as Ernest witnesses Isaacs begin to “foam at the mouth, gnash his teeth, and run and jump about wildly” (E. Elwell 33). While explaining the berry and its effects on livestock, there is a sense of factual detachment, as if Ernest is trying to adopt the tone of a more experienced farmer. He is unflinching while discussing how cattle “never thoroughly recovered” from eating tutu, concentrating on science and technicality rather than the emotion related to losing so much livestock to a poisonous weed (34). However, the disbelief that a fellow peer would eat such berries and suffer the same ailment of the animals seeps through, making Ernest’s enthusiasm almost tangible. The personal bias that Isaacs appears “foolish” for eating the tutu – followed by surprise and admiration that he “bled himself” in order to alleviate the affliction – emphasises the ‘otherness’ of Ernest’s new lifestyle and the excitement of its novelty (34). The novel is focalised through Ernest’s eyes; the reader sees as Ernest does and is subject to his interactions. Therefore, the reader is naturally inclined to align their attitudes with Ernest’s feelings. In passages like this, it becomes easier to notice and respond to his feelings. This passage is emblematic of the book’s wider style, which translates the same wonder felt by Ernest on his journey to the audience’s reading of it later.

Elwell estranges New Zealand from Britain through these descriptions of New Zealand nature, emphasising the physical and cultural distance between the two countries. Ernest narrates his first encounters with several species of native wildlife, including a particularly enormous lounge of lizards. The lizards are described as being “so numerous” they seemed “almost to swarm” (22). Of course, the word “swarm” is based on Elwell’s personal standards. It would have been even more common in the nineteenth century to stumble upon such a large collection, when the country was wilder and less populated. However, Elwell is writing with British standards in mind, to an audience who is not accustomed to such an abundance of the species. Seeing a giant swarm would have been alarming for any visitor to the country, and similarly so for overseas readers. It is also an interesting text for New Zealanders to read back, since it depicts a pre-colonisation New Zealand, more abundant and lusher for the lack of civilisations. The later description of the Paradise ducks’ “splendid plumage” is also biased towards a British interpretation (22). The birds’ “hideous crying” is an objective description, as it is entirely based on the narrator’s judgement (23). However, it does emphasise the strangeness of Ernest’s environment and his isolation from home.

The nature in which the boy is immersed not only distances the character himself, but also increases the separation between the novel’s content and its readership. Throughout these passages, Elwell estranges what he is experiencing by comparing it to what is familiar to him. This estrangement would have further intrigued Elwell’s audience, as they could make comparisons between their own home and the world of the novel (like this group of lizards). Such comparisons were made to evoke a sense of wonder in the reader.