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The Heading Dog Who Spilt in Half is a charming blend of tall tales, shanties and legends from New Zealand, all bound up in a visually pleasing collection. The tales themselves are simple and narrated in a light, yarn-like style, complemented well by the stark black and white line art of the images. Some of the illustrations are a little ghoulish – there’s a bag of scattered limbs on one page, the cross-section of the heading dog (that was split in half) on another. All are wonderfully rendered.
This is an insight into New Zealand history that you do not normally read in the text books; although there is one well-known tale here: the story of the “Phantom Canoe”, the ghost waka on Lake Tarawera that was sighted before the 1886 eruption. Other inclusions range from the sorrowful (and slightly fanciful) story behind The Cliffs and Tunnel Beach of Dunedin, to the bittersweet romance between a Maori princess and a whaler, a tale woven together in the 1960s from an 1830 legend. We have several songs – a sea shanty (Ranzo) and a pub song (The Day the Pub Burned Down), both brought to life with the lively, sometimes darkly humorous, illustrations. Also, a yarn about the giant crayfish (koura) in A Tale of Old Waihi and, of course, The Heading Dog of the title, who was split in half and stuck back together again.
And, if you want to know a bit more about the story behind the story, the appendices offer further details, along with information on the source material. Within themselves they are also a greater insight into our more fanciful history.
Overall, this is an engaging and appealing read that should connect the youth and urbanite adults of today with our heritage, weaving together the Maori and the Pakeha, with a hearty dose of the colonial English. It is a part of our heritage that has long been overlooked – with most myths and legends concentrating on the rich and elaborate Maori culture – and one that has still contributed to make New Zealand what it is today. I hope there are more to come!
Reviewed by Angela Oliver
The Heading Dog Who Split in Half
by Dr Michael Brown and Mat Tait
Published by Potton & Burton