The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
"The Totara Tree"
"The Totara Tree". In the centennial literary competitions in 1940, when Sargeson's "The Making of a New Zealander" won a first prize, third prize went to Roderick Finlayson for "The Totara Tree". Like Sargeson, Finlayson has done his finest work in the short story, though he has written two novels.
His first collection, Brown Man's Burden, 1938, like his second, Sweet Beulah Land, 1942, is animated by a belief about New Zealand life which is more commonly appreciated by our poets. It is that man, brown or white, will not be satisfied or find fulfilment in this country until he recognises his dependence on and relationship to the power of natural forces. This, Finlayson suggests, was well known to the old-time Maori, but is a wisdom lost today. "In this duty to the soil lies our strength and our health," he wrote in Our Life in this Land, 1940, "and we have neglected it." We have mined and marred the land with get-rich-quick farming, with ill-conceived scientific exploitation, being "miners, not husbandmen". Finlayson, who has Maori ancestry, writes with subtlety and understanding on the conflict between racial values, on the simple verities, on the problems of those who live on the margins of our society. The title story in Sweet Beulah Land is, like Sargeson's, taken ironically from The Pilgrim's Progress. The Land is God's Own Country, a Land of Heavenly Joy which Christian knows to be neighbour to the Celestial City. At a hui, Maori elders are flattered in the excitement of a spree into selling page 78 the communal acres, while a Pakeha evangelist distributes tracts about Sweet Beulah Land.
Finlayson's first novel, Tidal Creek, 1948, is a series of similar sketches held together by the central figure, Uncle Ted, and by its theme, which is that just outlined. The setting, somewhere tidal north of Rangitoto, is reached by a symbolic voyage in a crock of a coaster. Ted and his visiting town nephew Jake appear in all the tales, which often have the same quality as the inserted Dickensian yarns of our earlier fiction. Is Uncle Ted something more than his unshaven rural bachelor self? Is he to be linked with those other repudiators of society's values who recur in New Zealand fiction, hermits, rejectors of collars and ties and conformity? He is, in fact, a 1948 Philosopher Ted, or a fictional version of the poet Denis Glover's Arawata Bill. Ted will have nothing to do with the modern world, with its tractors, artificial manure, cities, and slick agents; he rejects the respectability of home and church. Even the prospect of meeting his sister makes him uneasy and he puts the ordeal off continually, saying to Jake, "We won't go up to your Ma's place yet". In addition, Uncle Ted has his dream, a "long trip" to the North Cape. "Must be a mighty lonely place. Yes. I'd like to go there. . . . That sounds lonely enough for me." He is too wise, however, to put his dream to the test. "Some day, Jake, some day. What's the hurry?" Uncle Ted has a philosophy too, rather a homespun affair. "Old Tidal Creek has got the lot [town blokes] licked. We own ourselves . . . What I do know is that I've dug in my dung here till me and the land sort of belong to each other. And here I live till I die."
Through the medium of rural sketches designedly comic, and somewhat of the Me and Gus type, an attempt is made to suggest a deeper significance. Ted is now himself, now a symbol. The book is uncertain in aim, but it is most original.
The Schooner Came to Atia, 1952, is a much more closely knit short novel restricted in time and place. It is set somewhere in the Cook Islands, which Finlayson does not see as a paradise. Missionary, native girl, visiting seducer, shooting, blackmail, are elements in a yarn intended to be not romantic entertainment but a bitter comment on the human situation.
(Topics for Study and Discussion are given in the Appendix.)