New Zealand Books

A three-part mem­oir from Mau­rice Gee, and the legacy of fe­male suf­frage.

North & South - - North & South - edited by PAUL LIT­TLE

Mem­ory Pieces Mau­rice Gee (Vic­to­ria Univer­sity Press, $35)

What a gift from Mau­rice Gee as he ap­proaches his 10th decade. Now 87, and al­ready the sub­ject of a sub­stan­tial bi­og­ra­phy, he has pro­duced a mem­oir in three dis­tinc­tive parts. The first and long­est is the story of his par­ents’ mar­riage, in­cor­po­rat­ing an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal piece by his mother. The sec­ond is a mem­oir of his own life un­til the age of 18, and the third is an ac­count of the life of his wife, Mar­garetha.

“Dou­ble Unit” is the long­est and most in­trigu­ing sec­tion, es­pe­cially as it casts an­other light on the fig­ure of Gee’s ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, James Chap­ple, known to us as the model for his char­ac­ter Plum.

Gee’s mother, Lynda, swore in­ces­santly. Her own short mem­oir is in­cluded here in full but there were also po­ems, sto­ries and other “scrib­blings” through­out her life. Frank Sargeson saw fit to pub­lish one of her sto­ries in his 1945 col­lec­tion Speak­ing for Our­selves.

This sec­tion is made em­i­nently read­able in part be­cause Lynda and Len’s mar­riage has its own story arc. There is a theme of dis­ap­point­ment run­ning through it: his with the fact he did not go to war; hers with her fail­ure to achieve suc­cess as a writer; and fi­nally a sense of dis­ap­point­ment each de­vel­ops in the other. Add to this the sim­ple but pro­found theme of how peo­ple cope with change and you have a rich and sat­is­fy­ing read

Mau­rice’s own mem­oir, “Blind Road”, is told as a se­ries of brief child­hood epipha­nies. More con­cerned with il­lu­mi­nat­ing than ar­chiv­ing, he says in the pref­ace that where re­search and mem­ory have been at odds, he’s cho­sen the lat­ter. At one point, he refers read­ers to Rachel Bar­row­man’s bi­og­ra­phy if they re­quire more in­for­ma­tion. He retells some of the events in “Dou­ble Unit”, sug­gest­ing the two pieces were com­piled some time apart.

The tril­ogy is rounded off with “Run­ning on the Stairs”, a short but af­fec­tion­ate trib­ute to his wife and the life of their mar­riage.

Ajax the Kea Dog Corey Mosen (Allen & Un­win, $39.99)

It’s got a dog, kea and the high-coun­try land­scape, so of course it’s go­ing to be a beau­ti­ful book. It has the sort of pic­tures that have you both­er­ing oth­ers in the house­hold: look at this one with the robin just sit­ting on the dog’s paw; look at this one of the kea and the dog eye­balling each other.

Mosen was one of those kids who grew up lov­ing an­i­mals, but didn’t like trial stints work­ing with a vet or at the zoo. Luck­ily for him and his con­ser­va­tion­ist bent, he and the part- Cata­houla breed dog met up and found them­selves work­ing for DOC, track­ing and record­ing kea and their habits in the wild. Cata­houlas are a smart Amer­i­can breed.

A match­mak­ing friend, Tamsin Orr-walker of the Kea Con­ser­va­tion Trust, found Ajax for Hansen on Trade Me. Their story is the clas­si­cal mythic archetype of hero and side­kick, al­though it’s not al­ways clear which is which. Ajax, like all good he­roes, shows no signs of great prom­ise at an early age but turns out to have the very qual­i­ties nec­es­sary to save the day – or the kea – in the long run. He is not as ac­tive now as he used to be, but out of 80 dogs that work for DOC (usu­ally muz­zled), he was the only ded­i­cated kea spe­cial­ist.

There’s also some se­ri­ous con­ser­va­tion and kea ad­vo­cacy go­ing on here. Kea are, af­ter all, the world’s only alpine par­rot, with a pop­u­la­tion hov­er­ing around 5000. That’s not at the very low end of the scale but cer­tainly not enough to be com­pla­cent about their on­go­ing sur­vival. Their adorable, de­struc­tive ways are very en­ter­tain­ing for tourists but can in­spire mur­der­ous in­tent in farm­ers. Man and dog have worked hard to make peo­ple see they’re not bad, just mis­un­der­stood.

Women Now: The Legacy of Fe­male Suf­frage Edited by Bron­wyn Labrum (Te Papa Press, $35)

There have been many books rid­ing the suf­frage an­niver­sary wave in this 125th year since women won the right to vote, but few as cre­atively con­ceived as this small vol­ume of es­says. As be­fits the com­mem­o­ra­tion of a “first”, it is the first in the Te Papa Think­ing About Se­ries.

Ed­i­tor Bron­wyn Labrum

asked 12 writ­ers – 10 women and two men – to com­pose es­says in­spired by var­i­ous items from Te Papa’s col­lec­tion that had some con­nec­tion with suf­frage.

The arte­facts cover 124 years, from Kate Shep­pard’s “Fran­chise Re­port for 1893 of the New Zealand Women’s Chris­tian Tem­per­ance Union” to Erin Kennedy’s knit­ted pussy hat of 2017. His­to­rian Bar­bara Brookes rel­ishes get­ting to grips with the sem­i­nal Shep­pard doc­u­ment and the ques­tions it raises, such as whether it was printed in In­ver­cargill be­cause it was dif­fi­cult to find some­one will­ing to pro­duce such a rad­i­cal item. Her piece shows how ev­ery word in “Women’s Chris­tian Tem­per­ance Union” was rel­e­vant to Shep­pard’s ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful strug­gle. It’s in­spir­ing stuff.

Jump for­ward a cen­tury and a quar­ter and we have writer Grace Tay­lor’s thought­pro­vok­ing strug­gle to come to terms with the pussy hat’s com­men­tary on women’s bod­ies and their com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion and with the very idea of fem­i­nism it­self. Which re­ally takes us back 125 years to pon­der how far fem­i­nism has come.

Per­haps Fiona Kid­man could an­swer that. Her trea­sure from the col­lec­tion is the con­tra­cep­tive pill, which for women who came to ma­tu­rity in the 1950s, she says, changed the con­ver­sa­tion from sex be­ing about preg­nancy and child­birth to be­ing about plea­sure. But, she notes, the abor­tion law for which she fought decades ago is still not a re­al­ity.

The Heart of Je­sus Valentino: A mother’s story Emma Gilk­i­son (Awa Press, $40)

The phrase “ev­ery par­ent’s night­mare” is used quite freely by peo­ple dis­cussing prob­lems with their kids, start­ing at about the level of a case of colic. But the ex­pe­ri­ence de­scribed by Emma Gilk­i­son is no par­ent’s night­mare: who could pos­si­bly imag­ine such a thing hap­pen­ing?

Gilk­i­son and her part­ner – a Peru­vian named Roy, af­ter a movie western hero – are a mod­ern cou­ple. They sort of get to­gether, drift apart, get to­gether again. When she be­comes preg­nant, there is spot­ting and other signs all is not well.

Their fears are down­played by the pro­fes­sion­als, un­til a scan re­veals at 12 weeks that this baby has ec­topia cordis, a con­di­tion in which the foetal heart forms out­side the body. It’s a rare con­di­tion and sur­vival is even rarer. Weeks of worry and fear fol­low as Gilk­i­son searches down ev­ery med­i­cal by­way look­ing for the per­son who will tell her all will be well. That per­son doesn’t ex­ist.

It’s a story that in­cor­po­rates many virtues: courage, res­ig­na­tion, love and hope, to name a few.

There is a strong spir­i­tual com­po­nent to the story. Bud­dhism and Catholi­cism join forces to sup­port Gilk­i­son. She and Roy can­not agree on whether to ter­mi­nate the preg­nancy, as many rec­om­mend. And con­cur­rent with all this trauma, they are tee­ter­ing on the brink of home­less­ness, try­ing to find a house to buy that may or not need to pro­vide shel­ter for a fam­ily of three.

The ques­tion of ter­mi­na­tion is the very def­i­ni­tion of dilemma. With the baby’s sur­vival al­most cer­tainly not pos­si­ble, there is no clear right or wrong an­swer, only tidal waves of ad­vice as­sail­ing them from all sides.

An­other phrase of­ten bandied about when any­one sur­vives more than a case of colic is “tes­ta­ment to the power of the hu­man spirit”. This book is such a tes­ta­ment. +

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