Title: The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Author: Joan Stevens

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1966

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Sylvia Johnston

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Passport to Hell

Passport to Hell. Passport to Hell is the novel in which the influence and friendship of John Lee can be most felt.-It is Robin Hyde's strongest "personal protest" about injustice, suffering, and society's intolerance of deviation from mid-Victorian morality. Win- page 55 ston Rhodes has spoken of her "groping for the scent of the people", searching for some living realisation of the brotherhood of man, of the lost spirit of community. In this first novel, these gropings are defined by negatives, for she tells the story of Starkie, outcast, rebel, misfit, hero, without permitting herself any of the direct appeals to her readers' sympathy which mar the effectiveness of John Lee's onslaught in Children of the Poor.

Passport to Hell is a fictional reconstruction of the life of James Douglas Stark, bomber, Fifth Regiment, N.Z.E.F. In her author's note Robin Hyde explains, "This book is not a work of fiction. I have related its incidents and the circumstances under which they happened, as Starkie told them to me ... At his own wish I have given the names of Starkie's family circle correctly, and those of the little group of friends who during the war were leagued together as 'Tent Eight'." A field chaplain, two generals and two New Zealand politicians are correctly named, otherwise the names are fictitious.

This novel, as well as its sequel Nor the Years Condemn, is remarkable for its picture of the tough male world which Robin Hyde could know of only by hearsay, and reconstruct only with imaginative sympathy. Readers will instantly think of parallels from the literature of World War II, such books as Brave Company, For the Rest of Our Lives, A Gun in my Hand, and so on.

The book begins with her description of how she met Starkie, sent to interview him in his little Auckland slum, with his motherless coffee-coloured children whom he refused to part with to the welfare officer. Speaking of the problem of the returned soldier in every country, she notes his desperate desire to fit in again, to "go forward and die" as one of the most valuable things remaining in our world. Then she tells Starkie's story from its beginnings. As the book is at present out of print, here is a brief outline. Starkie was born in Invercargill in 1898, son of a Delaware Indian from Great Bear Lake, who had come to the goldfields. His mother was Spanish. With his coal-black hair and bronze skin, the father "stalked through the psychological fences" of racial troubles "like some mahogany Moses". There follows a vivid re-creation of Starkie's rebellious childhood, his hatred of school—six months was the longest he lasted at any— and his spell at the Burnham Industrial School for the reform of incorrigibles, when he was twelve. He asked to go to sea, was put on a coal boat trading to the West Coast, was maltreated, deserted at Lyttelton, ran for it into the interior, was succoured and given temporary sanctuary in a back-country sheep station. After some time on the run, with casual jobs in woolstore or on wharf, he spent a year in Invercargill gaol marked down as a "Red Indian Savage". Released at sixteen, homeless and unloved, he enlisted. Life at Trentham, and his mates of Tent Eight, offered him companionship for the first time. On the voyage to Egypt he was in more trouble, page 56 for Army discipline rubbed him raw. Robin Hyde's account of his war experiences at Gallipoli and in France, on London leave, in military prison, or in the trenches, is a powerful achievement. When, as in the chapter entitled Court-Martial, Starkie is made to speak for himself, the narration is slangy, jerky, and natural, suggesting most effectively the man he was.

This is a violent book, savage, full of anger at injustice. Yet, unlike John Lee, Robin Hyde leaves her tale to carry its own message. Starkie goes all through the war, being shipped home at Christmas 1918, bringing nothing with him "but his tattooed captaincy stars, a record of nine courts-martial, a total of 35 years' penal servitude in military sentences—all cancelled for gallantry in action".

Thus Starkie returns, aged exactly twenty, to take up civilian existence. "Everything—life even—is field punishment." No moral is drawn, except what may be implied in the final words of the story:

" '. . . Do you know your charge?'

'Charged with being Starkie, sir; and God knows what else.'"