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

Coal Flat

Coal Flat. Our most comprehensive study of an ingrown township is Bill Pearson's Coal Flat, 1963, which Charles Brasch described in Landfall, June 1964, as "the richest and strongest work of its kind yet to appear in New Zealand". It is interesting now to reread Pearson's article "Fretful Sleepers", originally written in 1952 from the relative detachment of his years in London. (It is reprinted in {Landfall Country, 1962.)

In this prejudiced piece of sociology, Pearson analyses "with un-appeased resentment" the little country he had just escaped from. He expresses here the attitudes from which the novel was later to grow. I quote some remarks: "There is no place in normal New Zealand society for the man who is different." "We need an art to expose ourselves, explain ourselves to ourselves, see ourselves in a perspective of time and place." "No artist can work without an audience willing to co-operate: if he is to be honest his audience must be honest; they must be prepared to speculate about themselves. This is something New Zealanders will not do." "There is a paucity of common experience ... a need for a common experience to talk from, and the need for conventions to account for and place emotions unrecognised in the threadbare constitution of social behaviour."

These are the words of 1952. I believe that in the thirteen years since, artists have established such conventions and located our common experience, that the art has been found which can show ourselves to ourselves, and that both writers and readers are more honest than they were. Pearson's own novel is a measure of the change. Like The Story of a New Zealand River and Man Alone, it is a challenge to our sincerity and intelligence, a fictional embodiment of his gritty social analysis.

Pearson takes a West Coast mining township, admirable for his purpose because it is small, isolated by geography and social tradition, and with a strongly marked individuality. Such a town is manageable within the compass of a novel, and offers a microcosm of New Zealand life.

There are the pub, the school, and the dance hall; there are doctors, publicans, teachers, priests, housewives; there are the main road, the railway, the creek, the dredge, the water-races, the cicadas, the blackberries. And dominating all is the mine, with its union and its politics, and its workers who balance the more usual middle-class preoccupations of our satirists. Pearson chooses this community for a study which is to "expose ourselves to ourselves".

His method is orthodox and ample; bring to the town an outsider: page 121 let him, and through him the reader, explore its personalities, reticences and tensions; let his inexperience and honesty slice into accepted patterns, promote conflicts, and expose latent truths; and finally let his actions in the resolution of the plot bring sharply before the reader the personal and social problems of our time. At the end, the hero will withdraw, so that the reader can pull out too, and think it over.

Coal Flat tells, then, of Paul Rogers, a Coaster who is "different" because of his education and his stand as a conscientious objector. He is haunted by a sense of guilt, however, since he did not stick to his conchy principles after all; with an urge to atone to society in some unspecified way, he arrives one February morning to take up a post at the school. In the year that follows, he is tested as an idealist, as a socialist, as a lover, and as a teacher. By November, it is clear that he has failed in everything except his personal relationship to Flora Palmer. The school, the mining community, the church, the ordinary families, are impervious to change. The boy he would have helped is back where he was. The miners have learnt nothing from the boycott and the strike. Social attitudes are unaltered. The town wins, and settles back unmodified, as the closing paragraph suggests.

Paul gives up, and takes Flora away: "I can't stay here. I'm out of place. The town isn't with me . . . I've got to start in another place . . . I'll be a safe conforming suburban backgardener . . . boasting of beancrops over the back fence . . . I'll steer clear of ideas. I'll be just another suburban New Zealander . . . and I'll go for the job and the family and the house and the garden."

It is a pessimistic view of ourselves that Pearson offers, and the reader will probably want to argue with him. The town "let Paul down", it is true; but how valid are Paul's ideas, anyway? Much of the novel centres on this problem of loyalty, to people, to class, to principles, to friends. Paul's story raises in acute form problems we have all had to face.

(Notes for a critical discussion will be found in the Appendix.)