Book Review: The Meeting Place. Māori and Pākehā Encounters 1642-1840

There are many academic reviews of The Meeting ImagePlace and I feel confident that both high school and university students will become familiar with this text.  Is this, though, a useful text for the home?  I felt that my education skipped over a lot of early New Zealand history, and that it was law school where I finally began to understand our early history.  This book really helped me to gain a good insight into early New Zealand history, and subsequently a better understanding of how race relations in the twentieth century played out.

The book examines the interactions between Māori and Pākehā from the earliest of contact through to sophisticated, systematised encounters.  The author, Vincent O’Malley, outlines these encounters chronologically, starting from the earliest contact (and the greatest examples of culture clash/ misunderstandings) through to regular engagement around 1814, right up to the ‘tipping point’ when one culture dominated.  The years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the presence of the British Government and regular settlement in New Zealand by the British meant that the European settlers were able to be more self-reliant.  No longer needing Māori for trade, or being able to resolve matters through British law rather than negotiation meant that the cultures separated.  Pākehā culture rapidly dominated – by 1858 there were more Pākehā residents than Māori in New Zealand. Maori adopted many aspects of Pākehā culture; Pākehā no longer felt the need to engage with Māori and previous efforts in understanding and applying Māori culture waned.

If you are reading this book for fun I suggest skipping the introduction.  It took me two goes to read through and appreciate the introduction – I was concerned the whole book would be as academic and dry.  Instead, there were parts of the book, particularly the very earliest encounters, that I read almost as though it was a thriller – I was keen to learn what would happen next!  Stories where Māori were treated as possessions or slaves really got to me, and explanations of some early cultural misunderstandings were appreciated. The book’s strength for me lies in these explanations, as attempts by the author to obtain sources from both cultures helps to provide context to the encounters.  Concepts around gift-giving are discussed in the early part of the book. At this time (1770’s) Māori gift-giving required the gift to be returned to an equal or greater amount as a way of preserving the mana of the recipient.  It was not necessary, however, that this take place straight away.  Early encounters of trade/ gift giving were well placed to create confusion – gifts Captain Cook and his crew gave Māori (with no expectation of reciprocity) saw gifts being made the following day.  Equally, giving Māori an item and then indicating what was desired in trade was not well received.

Why should the average home own this book?  The Meeting Place really helps to explain the environment, events and tensions in bi-cultural Aotearoa / New Zealand.  This is our story.  The stories told and context provided is one of the more balanced and nuanced explanations of our early history.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

The Meeting Place: Māori and Pākehā Encounters 1642-1840
by Vincent O’Malley
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 97818694059 6

Book review: A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo

This book is in bookshops now

I was looking forward to reading award-winning author Michael Morpurgo’s A Medal for Leroy because, although I haven’t read any of his other books I have heard of a number of them, and am a big fan of the theatre play War Horse, based on Morpurgo’s novel of the same name. However, I have to hope that A Medal for Leroy is a departure from his usual form as I did not find it to be inspiring or engaging, and it left me with a distinct feeling of ‘so what?’

I realise that I am not the target demographic for this children’s book, but this, I felt, was one of the problems with the book – it was very unclear at which age group it was aimed. The narrator, Michael, is telling the story of events in his life when he was first 8, and then 13, but is retelling these events as an old man. The ‘voice’ of Michael feels very much like an older person telling a boy’s story, and I’m not sure it would capture or really ‘speak to’ its young audience. The book opens and closes with present-day Michael, but the promise of the suspenseful opening pages, which leave us initially wondering what is happening and why, is never really fulfilled.

The story suffers from over complexity. Ostensibly about Michael at three different ages, the bulk of the story actually concerns the lives of his father and grandfather who died in the second and first World Wars respectively. A significant chunk of the story is told via a letter from Michael’s ‘Aunt Snowflake’, who turns out to be his grandmother. The ‘twist’ whereby all the dogs are named Jasper just served to add to the confusion. I found myself constantly having to flick backwards and forwards to remember whether we were in Leroy’s story, Roy’s story, or Michael’s. And all this in 200-odd pages of fairly large type!

The themes were also quite adult for a children’s story. Dialogue about intercultural relationships, single parenthood and racism all run through the story, and because of the historical context of the book it did not feel like these issues would be easily comprehensible to a child reader. The pace was quite slow and all the “action” happened at a distance, either being relayed by letter, or through someone telling a story about something that happened years ago. This really distanced me from the core of the story, and it didn’t feel like any of the action was really big or important or relevant to Michael either.

Having said all that, I particularly like the characters of Aunty Pish and Aunty Snowflake, and I could tell that this particular story was one the author was passionate about telling.

Perhaps making it a longer story for older readers, told in context rather at a remove, would have made it a more engaging read. I will persevere and read other of Morpurgo’s work and would recommend those new to his work to start with some of his award-winning works before considering this one.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

A Medal for Leroy
by Michael Morpurgo
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780007363582