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

The Key

The Key. Anna's inefficiencies, her chaotic classroom, her missing rolls, her abandoned work books, are outward matters only. Beneath there is the search for the key which will unlock life for these little brown minds. To what will they respond? Anna listens to their voices.

'What are you crying for, Very Little One?' . . . ('It's always relationship they cry over,' comments Anna.)

Matawhero doesn't draw. He is reading the Blue Jug to Patchy on the steps . . . Matawhero is too closely concerned with the personal relation to do anything with only himself in it. . .

T be your pet, ay,' suggests Riki, climbing upon my knee as I sit on my low chair. T be your pet over all them others . . . ' She wants what she wants and likes what she likes and what she wants and likes is a full measure of Thee and Me . ..

What is the key, then, to such children? What, if it comes to that, is the key to life, for which Anna is searching?

The key for the children is discovered in a flash of perception; it is in the words to which they will respond on the reading book page, the words of their life—fear, ghost, kill, butcher, police, fight, gaol. These, not the Janet-and-John sentimentalities of A Cat on The Mat, will draw the Maori child into the world of written communication with his fellows.

page 105

. . . 'What's this word?' asks Tame.


A strange excitement comes over him. He smirks, then laughs outright, says it again, then tugs at Patchy nearby and shows him. 'That's "kiss",' he says emotionally. 'K-I-S-S.'

Patchy lights up too in an extraordinary way. They both spell it. The reading is held up while others are called and told and I feel that something has happened though I don't know what.

The next morning Patchy runs in, his freckles all agog.

T can till pell kitt!' he cries. 'K-i-et-et!'

Anna reflects, "What terrible power there must be in words for little children if we could only tap it and harness it!"

This she does, in the Maori reading books which she writes and illustrates. But her own problems of living are less easy to solve. When her work is not recognised professionally by the grading awards, she abandons it. The end of the novel sees her setting off back to her own land to meet the shadowy Eugene who has at last, it seems, offered to put the question for which Spinster has been craving for so long. The hurt will be healed which was inflicted by "Somebodies", her longing to create will find its fulfilment, and a son, perhaps, will be hers to cherish as another Little One in another land.

This is what Spinster is about. It is not a novel "about how to educate Maori children" (as one teacher-reviewer asserted). It is not an "introduction to the sorrows and joys of country teaching". It is a novel about "man, woman and child" in Robin Hyde's phrase, an exploration of aspects of living, especially as woman and child may know them.