Book review: Rangatira by Paula Morris

This book is in stores now and is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Paula Morris has been deservedly nominated as a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards 2012 for Rangatira. It’s an essential read for anyone who loves historical fiction or has an interest in early colonial New Zealand.

Based on the story of Morris’s ancestor Paratene Te Manu (Ngati Wai), the historical reach of the story covers Paratene’s youth while on military campaigns with Hongi Hika in the early 1820s through to his old age in the 1880s (Paratene died in 1896), with the bulk of the narrative covering Paratene’s trip to England in 1863. Morris has done her research thoroughly, and immerses the reader in both muddy, aspiring 1880s Auckland and the grimy, poverty- and pollution-ridden cityscapes of England in 1863.

Using the device of an imagined portrait sitting with Gottfried Lindauer (who did in fact paint Paratene’s portrait, although probably from a photograph), Morris has Paratene tell of his journey to England. The journey, led by Wesleyan William Jenkins, had multiple purposes and the participants differing plans and desires; combined with language barriers and distrust amongst Māori from differing hapu and iwi, these often divergent agendas led to much of the drama that occurs.

There’s something that Morris has done with the phrasing of Paratene’s story that is very familiar; I couldn’t tell you exactly how she’s done it, but it was very easy to hear the voice of kuia and kaumatua I have listened to on marae over the years in Paratene’s voice, an odd but familiar mix of the querulous and the authoritative. If Rangatira is ever picked up for radio adaptation or an audio book – and I think it’d be great – it really needs George Henare to read it.

In 2012 New Zealand, with many Treaty of Waitangi claims, water ownership and access to the seabed and foreshore still to be resolved, the subplot of the Land Court hearings in 1886 regarding ownership of (Hauturu) Little Barrier Island is illuminating – perhaps we haven’t come as far in righting historical wrongs as we like to think. Although the Treaty of Waitangi claim to Hauturu has been since been settled, the post script to the story about the treatment of the owners in the 1890s is uncomfortable reading.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore.

by Paula Morris
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN  9780143565758 (Paperback) and 9781742532219 (Ebook)