The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Serious Attempts. More serious in intention are J. F. Cody's The Red Kaka, 1955, and Leo Fowler's Brown Conflict, 1959. J. F. Cody is well known as the biographer of Sir Maui Pomare (Man of Two Worlds), and as author of several volumes of New Zealand war history. The Red Kaka is not as impressive as these; like John White and G. H. Wilson, J. F. Cody has more information than he can work naturally into the fabric of his novel. The facts of the Maori background, of the whaling, sealing and Marsden period have had to be pumped in. His red-headed, Irish ex-convict hero, Timothy O'Hara, goes native, bringing us among cannibals, tohungas, tribal wars and extensive Maori oratory. But one gets lost, even with the best will in the world, among the chaos of successive combats. Perhaps Cody's failure with his material—like our earlier failures—is due to the extraordinary difficulty of making the issue of such conflicts matter to readers. Walter Scott's bloodshed in Ivanhoe is open to the same charge, but we are more familiar with and perhaps more receptive page 90 to knights in armour as elements in a historical pageant. The Maori warrior of ancient times is still intractable literary material.
Brown Conflict is a pro-Maori romance of events leading up to the 1860 wars, with the settlers on one side clamouring for land, and the Maori leaders on the other unwilling to forfeit their heritage. Somewhere between are those Europeans who by birth or experience are aware of the claims of both sides. Such is the hero, blood-brother to a chief, who tells an artless story of what happened and how he felt. Actual personages such as Governor Gore Browne and General Cameron, Rewi and Tamihana, appear.
Fowler's literary skill is not equal to his knowledge of Maori matters; his characters do not come to life, the writing is often stale, the plot a bundle of cliches. But the novel is redeemed by its sincerity, and by the interest of its details, such as those of the flax-cutting industry and of Maori life. Compare it with The Greenstone Door.
A complete contrast to Brown Conflict is offered by Ruth Park's One-a-pecker, Two-a-pecker, 1957, a story of the Otago gold rush of 1863. For the preparatory research Ruth Park had a grant from the Literary Fund. All the events are authentic, and the details based on papers, interviews with old diggers, letters, and so on. It is a conscious attempt to recreate old Otago. Unhappily, the habit of popularisation has been too strong for the author, who has seen our history largely through the distorting mists of romantic preconceptions. The balance of the book does not lie in the picture of Otago life, but in the exhausting emotional trials and ecstasies of the heroine. Far too much happens to her. She moves through events and scenes which are overdramatised, overwritten. Characters talk in synthetic Scots, in Irish, in pidgin English; Chinese are "Celestials", babies are "wee" and "bonny"; there are fights, snowstorms, births, love, violent death, old songs, and a good deal of luscious sentimentality.