The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Maori Fiction Again
Maori Fiction Again. Plume of the Arawas, 1930, by Frank Acheson, is a historical romance of the Arawa tribe set in pre-Pakeha times. Acheson, a judge in the Native Land Court, acknowledges in his preface the help of his many Maori friends. He chooses for his hero the chief's son Manaia, "Plume of the Arawa", ancestor of the Ngati-Tuwharetoa of the Taupo-Tongariro region. He was one of the urukehu, the fair-haired strain in the Maori race. Acheson contrives for him a romance with Reremoa, a Ngati-Hotu maiden; the war between the Arawa and Tuhoe peoples provides the plot. There is no observing Pakeha as in William Satchell's Maori story. The reader who is sympathetic toward the necessary but rather large doses of Maori language and beliefs in the opening chapters page 42 will be well rewarded. Names, chants, oratory, are most poetically rendered. Some characters are memorable, too, granted the extraordinary difficulty of recreating them in the distant Maori past. Manaia (later called Tuwharetoa), with his divided loyalties, Te Puku the fat, the traitor Kahu, are quite good enough for an adventure story. There are good accounts of the makutu test of the tohungas, of single combats, and of canoe-building and fighting tactics. The chapter headings are from Maori poems in translation by Alfred Domett, Thomas Bracken, John White, and others. While there is some stilted language and guide-book material, love of the people and sensitivity to their atmosphere have enabled Frank Acheson to avoid many of the pitfalls of this type of fiction. It is to be hoped that his novel will soon again be in print. Readers will then be able to get a complete picture of the genre, with J. F. Cody's The Red Kaka, 1955, and Leo Fowler's Brown Conflict, 1959, to show what has been done more recently.
A story of contemporary Maori life is F. E. Baume's Half-Caste, 1933. Eric Baume, a New Zealand-born journalist who made a reputation in Australia, takes the hoary old plot of the half-Maori child who cannot fit into Pakeha society. Ngaire is born at Oparau Pa, near Kawhia, of a mother who "matriculated and slept with three lawyers and a Captain of Garrison Artillery" before she was 19, going on thereafter to Auckland University. Ngaire is brought up at the pa, taught to read and write, and to appreciate Ibsen, Swinburne, Oscar Wilde. At fourteen, she goes to a Pakeha secondary school in Auckland, where they call her "nigger", and think that her reading tastes are rather shocking. Baume then serves up further harrowing experiences designed to expose the colour bar, but contrived with such exaggeration that one merely laughs. Finally, having been rescued by a right-minded if eccentric English "Hon.", to whom she becomes a companion, Ngaire meets her fate in the shape of Peter, a Scot. They marry in style in the Methodist Church, have a bush honeymoon (like H. B. Vogel's Ngaia in A Maori Maid), and set off to foreign parts. When Ngaire finds that a child is coming, she panics, for she has not told Peter of her mixed blood. She runs home to the pa—but the baby has blue eyes! However, Peter forgives both her silence and her racial inheritance, so that all ends happily.
Eric Baume doubtless meant well, but had no conception of the complexities of the topic. Noel Hilliard's Maori Girl, nearly thirty years later, gets much nearer to the truth.