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Our stories are an important part of who we are. This is especially so in New Zealand, which really was the ends of the earth to our brave and intrepid forebears. Why would someone choose to travel in appalling conditions to a land of promise but little fact, far away from all their family, friends and culture?
Alexandra Tidswell has taken on the challenge presented by her own family to answer this question. As a seventh generation New Zealander, she had the initial stories, a 1960’s search and some 1980’s genealogical data as a starting point. From this, she has created a story which gripped me to the end.
Martha Grimm escapes to New Zealand with her daughter Mary Ann from Warwickshire in 1814. She left behind parents, other children and a husband, who had been transported to Australia. She leaves to follow her dream of escaping poverty and make a new life. While the novel is based on true events, the setting and characters are beautifully rounded and add real depth to the story. This is not a poetic foray into the beauties of the New Zealand landscape. At no time was I bogged down in treacle description. Rather, the storyline is strong and urgent. Martha has a determined and ambitious plan which she works hard to bring about. The tension in the story arises with the tale of her husband, as he too tries to escape the poverty and injustice of convict life in Australia. As his wife has remarried and become something of a society lady in Wellington, will her past catch up with her?
Tidswell has treated each part of the story with a genuine honesty and sympathy for the characters and their response to events. While we could view Martha as a selfish woman who cares little for her children left in the workhouse, we are drawn into the dream of a better future. The possibility that she might claim her children when she has succeeded, is always there. However, the stories of the children are also handled masterfully as they make their own way without the care of their parents. We cannot help but share the dream of Martha.
Likewise, the role played by the indigenous people, both in Australia and New Zealand, in supporting the naïve and unprepared immigrants in this new environment, is handled well. It is not overplayed but the information is there as part of the overall view.
Wellington residents will enjoy the description of early Wellington streets and suburbs as the settlement grows and the early homes are replaced by more substantial residences.
I see Lewisville as a coming-of-age book. The family story in integral but it is a really gripping story with real characters and identifiable places. This is a valuable contribution to the backstory of our country. It is well-told, excellently edited and researched and very readable. A great way for me to start my holidays.
Reviewed by Kathy Watson
By Alexandra Tidswell
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)