The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
The Greenstone Door
The Greenstone Door. Satchell's fame rests ultimately upon his last book published in the unlucky year of 1914. The Greenstone Door is a historical novel, set in 1830-60, and involving not experience recalled and transmuted, but a past reconstructed. It is more carefully organised, more thoroughly prepared than the earlier three stories.
In the previous chapter it was suggested that serious Maori novels set in the past tend to sink under the weight of necessary information. Satchell chose most skilfully to focus his story through the mind of an adult remembering his childhood. The reader is in this way taken naturally into the hero's confidence. To some extent, the reader learns as Cedric Tregarthen learns; where needed, and quite acceptably, Satchell exercises the storyteller's usual privilege of supplementing with extra material, but this does not spoil the illusion, for the teller is still Cedric himself. Thus, in chapter 1, Satchell begins evocatively with Cedric's earliest vivid memories, slips in the further details which the grown man knows though the child did not ("I have no actual recollection of the moment when these two intrepid white men . . . ") and fills out the picture from a later point of view with such phrases as "at the moment of which I write ..." or, "At this period the practice of cannibalism . . ."
It all falls together naturally; the recollections of childhood blend with the later wisdom of the man who writes them down. It is a simple technique, handled artlessly, but it works well enough for its purpose, at least in the first half of the novel.
Many New Zealanders know The Greenstone Door. Cedric's father page 34 is killed by the Maoris, the child is protected by Trader Purcell, the Thumb of Te Waharoa, and adopted by that chief as his Little Finger. He grows up among the Maori people, with his foster sister Puhi-Huia, and his friend Rangiora.
Together the three young people penetrate to a secret limestone cave, where in their fancy the stalagmites take the shapes of men and women in some drama of the future; Rangiora and Cedric end the racial hostility of their boyhood with an oath of peace, the compact of the Tatau Pounamu, that the Greenstone Door be closed.
Events then move on in history, through the troubles that followed Waitangi. In his teens, Cedric is sent to Auckland, to be initiated into the white man's world; this enables Satchell to give us our dose of Pakeha facts in their turn. The boy grows up into an eligible young man who meets Sir George Grey and falls in love with a heroine improbably called Helenora. When the wars break out, sympathies and loyalties are divided; we are shown both sides. Purcell, who joins the Maori people, is executed as a traitor. Satchell contrives in Scott's manner to involve his fictitious persons in historical events where they can play noted parts. Cedric goes, for instance, with General Cameron to the siege of Orakau Pa in April 1864, and accompanies Major Mair to the edge of the redoubt to make that famous offer of surrender terms the resounding rejection of which has been so well remembered. It is Rangiora who is made to speak the Maori defiance "E hoa, ka whawhai tonu ahau ki a koe, ake, ake!" (Friend, I shall fight against you for ever, for ever!) Puhi-Huia is among the slain. With all his companions dead, shattered by his experience of conflicting loyalties, Cedric lies desperately ill, but is nursed back—alas, in the best Victorian sentiment—by the repentant Helenora.
The difficulties of this sort of thing are considerable, but many of them, I suggest, are surmounted. E. H. McCormick comments that "the plot is more improbable and melodramatic than ever"5—but is an author not entitled to pile it on a bit in a historical romance, as R. L. Stevenson did?
William Satchell's achievement is, considering his time and environment, a real one. He is, moreover, the earliest of our novelists to be widely read today. When The Land of the Lost comes into circulation again his reputation should be secure. P. J. Wilson's biography, The Maorilander, has added to our appreciation of the literary and social background of his times.
(Topics for Study and Discussion are given in the Appendix.)