Monday, February 13, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE FOX BOY” by Peter Walker (first published 2001)

A factual book on somebody from New Zealand’s past, into which the author inserts himself as a main character. Peter Wells’ The Hungry Heart is not the first biography to adopt this strategy.

Peter Walker’s The Fox Boy, subtitled The Story of an Abducted Child, is about somebody more obscure than William Colenso, but it also illuminates episodes of the nineteenth century interface of Maori and Pakeha, and forces us into some painful soul-searching.
This is a work of historical reconstruction. Walker (a London-based New Zealander) follows the history of Ngatau Omahuru, kidnapped at the age of six after the Taranaki wars of the 1860s and handed over to Sir William Fox to be brought up and civilised as “the Fox boy”. Being about a Maori kid forced into a Pakeha mould, it’s a classic tale of cultural dislocation and also a work of intense Pakeha guilt.

Walker is forced to acknowledge that the historical record grows dim at times. Frankly not an awful lot of traces of “the Fox boy” survive. Walker has to fill in the gaps with imaginative speculation. But it winds up at Parihaka where Ngatau Omahuru had taken refuge, and where Te Whiti’s pacifism was brushed aside by an armed land grab supported by the government.

Peter Walker’s thesis is that Omahuru, trained to be an English gentleman, decided to return to his own Taranaki people and thus angered Sir William Fox, the former premier and one of the commission that decided on land confiscations. Sir William had much at stake emotionally. He felt aggrieved that his offer of an upbringing in a superior civilisation had been rejected by a Maori kid. In consequence, speculates Peter Walker, Sir William played a far more vindictive role over Parihaka than he might otherwise have done, approving the eradication of the community. He was settling a personal score as well as a racial one, by getting even with the boy who wilfully rejected the blessings of Englishness.

Yet all this is only what the book is ostensibly about – the pretext, shall we say, for Walker to nudge unquiet ghosts of Pakeha identity and examine his own childhood as a provincial New Zealander. He tries to penetrate and decode such Maori oral culture as he was kindly given and to interrogate his own cultural landscape. Pages tell us about Walker’s own schooling and upbringing, his youthful ignorance of Maoritanga etc.

Is this satisfactory as “history”?

Not entirely. As in Peter Wells’ The Hungry Heart there is much speculation, much guesswork, much foregrounding of the author’s own sensibility  and many times when readers might suspect that too much has been made of a meagre documentary record. Can all this really be inferred legitimately from a few inconclusive surviving written records? Like The Hungry Heart, then, The Fox Boy situates itself halfway between biography and imaginative essay. Parts of it could readily be blown to smithereens by historians with a firm understanding of the legitimate uses of evidence.

Even so, as an essay on Pakeha cultural dislocation, The Fox Boy is very interesting. And there is the chance that Peter Walker’s speculations are true.

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