My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My copy of “Into the River”, New Zealand’s supreme winner in the NZPost Book Awards, came with a little black sticker cautioning “Parental Advisory, Explicit Content.” on it. Man, I couldn’t wait to read it as soon as I saw that! Talk about way to sell a book.
But the sordid pornography, gratuitous sex scenes, rampant drug taking and general reckless teenage behaviour that had neurotic parents baulking, never actually materialised. Perhaps that’s because those neurotic parents hadn’t actually READ the book, cover to cover, in context. Or maybe it’s because I still remember what it was like to be a teenager; and I’m not in the business of feigning shock at what goes on when parents’ backs are turned.
Even the much anticipated “C-word” references left me wanting. Like the sound a lone party horn makes just before it fizzes and dies out, those passages were so fleeting, and so perfectly “within context” as to be anti-climatic. I had to re-read them just to give them another chance to make an impact. I felt like saying “C’mon Ted, you gotta earn that Parental Advisory sticker! All you’ve given us so far is real people talking how real people talk!”
And as for the sex scenes, I can honestly say I’ve inadvertently come across more offensive content searching for vacuum cleaner parts on the internet.
Yes, I’m being facetious. But hey! When was the last time a book was banned in New Zealand? This is exciting stuff! Of course, if you want to have a more serious, intelligent, philosophical and moral discussion about these issues I recommend you read Bernard Beckett’s blog and comments section. As a judge of the awards, Bernard has generously invited anyone with an opinion and an internet connection to engage with him on any and all issues raised in the book.
For those of you either not in New Zealand, or living under a rock, you must be wondering what all the fuss is about. Here’s a synopsis: “Into the River” is the story of a young Māori boy from a small rural town on the East Coast of NZ who wins a scholarship to a prestigious (predominantly Pākeha (white)), upper class boarding school in Auckland, on the strength of his academic potential. Te Arepa, or Devon as he’s nicknamed at the new school, carries the name of a heroic ancestor whose courage and bravery once saved the whole iwi (tribe). Te Arepa’s grandfather is ambitious for his grandson, seeing this scholarship as the opportunity to carry the great legacy on in modern times.
Author Ted Dawe is a school teacher with many years experience in the profession, and it shows; this feels like it’s been written by someone on the inside. He has painted larger than life characters, from Grandfather Ra, to Cousin Paikea, to the bully to the best friend, all with a light touch. Dialogue is astutely observed and drives the novel forward. There are scenes vivid enough to make you feel like you’re right there. There’s peer pressure, complicated complex relationships, fast cars, dope, decisions that are made without conscious consideration, repercussions, anger, disappointment, confusion, foolhardiness and loss.
More seriously, it explores the vulnerability of young people and the myriad ways in which they can find themselves in the kind of trouble they never anticipated coming. Including sexual vulnerability. It is about stress and ultimately survival. The momentum builds gradually but relentlessly, weaving together the strands of the past and an uncertain future in a way that ensures you will want to finish it in one sitting. “Into the River” is a so-called prequel to Thunder Road, which makes sense: the ending feels more like a new beginning than a conclusion. Bonus side-note: both novels were self-published to critical acclaim (so there, traditional publishers!).
If you ask me what the real horror in this novel was though, it was the depiction of life at a boy’s boarding school. I wish that someone might be able to reassure me that Ted Dawe got it all wrong when portraying how the pecking order is established and maintained, or how cruelly and even brutally punishments are meted out. But as a school teacher who taught in a boarding school himself, something tells me he was drawing more on fact than imagination. Forget the “C” word, think Lord of the Flies.
Although there are aspects of this novel that can be generalised and will be recognisable to anyone who’s grown up in New Zealand, “Into the River” is not about the general experience at all, rather the very specific experiences of a boy shunted out to the margins of society.
The only time where I questioned the veracity of the story was in the personal journey of Te Arepa himself. Though I liked him a lot, and could identify with his silent outrage, when he acquiesced to the pressure to shed every semblance of his former self, his very identify, in order to be accepted in a Pākeha world, I came up short. Would he really have done that? Would he not have fought back, dug his heels in, even a little?
It’s not that a Pākeha man can’t write about the Māori experience, as some vehement critics have argued. I think Ted Dawe can, and does do credibly. But we are all products of our time, and I would have expected a character like Te Arepa, raised by his grandfather (an elder or possibly even the chief of the iwi?) in a small rural town in a predominantly Māori area of New Zealand, to be fluent, or have at least some knowledge of Te Reo (Māori language). Particularly given that the novel is set in the latter period of the Māori Renaissance (although the novel is not actually specific about the period a mobile phone features, as well as party drug “e”, so it’s at least somewhere post-1990s). In other words, after the Kohanga Reo movement which saw a huge resurgence of the Māori language and an effort particularly in rural areas, to revive its roots. Surely Te Arepa’s concept of the world would have been filtered first through Te Reo?
Likewise, I would have thought Te Arepa’s cultural reference points – such as Kapa Haka, marae life, communal rituals and so on, to have been greater features in his life (and therefore to have been much harder to dispense with). The absence of these tenets may have been deliberate; a comment about the loss and dispossession that Māori have suffered, not to mention the institutional racism endured throughout successive generations. Certainly, Te Arepa feels the only way to survive is to reinvent himself. But somehow I expected the anguish he went through in coming to that conclusion would have been greater than it appeared to be, and his resistance to have been more profound than it was.
Regardless, it’s a great book, well written. And my appreciation for Ted Dawe’s talent and achievement was enriched further after reading more about him, and in particular from listening to Kim Hill’s wonderful interview where he revealed himself to be nothing if not wise, humble, intelligent, creative, and most of all, knowledgeable and passionate about literature as a means of connecting with, and validating the experiences of, young people growing up in New Zealand.
I absolutely recommend his book, although, if you are after something a little less savoury, I suggest you google vacuum cleaner parts instead.
***P.S. If you’re one of aforementioned neurotic parents who feels threatened by books portraying real life with the nasty, sex ridden, drug-addled bits left in, then you’ll be grateful that the helpful people over at Goodreads have done you the favour of putting together a censorship list for you. Go forth and
ensure your kids only read these ban books for your teen!***
***P.P.S For a great, balanced review of Into The River, written long before the book won its award and drew negative speculation, see Megan’s review. It’s interesting to gauge the views of someone who was reading with a blank slate, so to speak.***