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No. 26 (March 1959)
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BOOKS

MAORI CHILDREN COME TO LIFE IN REMARKABLE NOVEL

REVIEW OF ‘SPINSTER’ BY SYLVIA ASHTON WARNER

This book is about Maori children. There has not been such a book before, in which Maori children really come to life in the way they are. ‘What is it, what is it, Little One?’ starts the novel. And the answer comes ‘That's why somebodies they tread my sore leg for notheen. Somebodies.

Miss Voffa,’ inquires Twinnie, ‘how do you spell ‘boko’?

What are you writing?’

My twin she dong me on the boko.’

* *

I'll shoot that ghost,’ Matawhero assures us, ‘It jumps on my back.’

* *

What's the matter with her face?’ asks Mohi when teacher has had a great disappointment.

Her nose it's got long’, observes Seven.

Her hair it is curly like a circus,’ noted Bleeding Heart. ‘Tinga-aling.’

Her eyes they's like a morepork.’

Her mouf is too big.’

She got fox teef.’

Her ears they flap.’

Course. She got ghost flesh. Miss Vontopop.

The children make up the core of this wonderful book—Whareparita, Matawhero, Hinewaka, Seven, Waiwini all stand out as full-blooded characters with their love, their fears, their violence, and all the storms of their family background. There has not been such a novel before. No Maori has yet published a novel and no pakeha, until this book, has really understood the Maori child. One moment they are embracing, the next they are kicking each other ‘in the stomat for nutteen’. There is no sentimentality, no caricature, but the humour and understanding that comes with love.

The whole book plays in a school and the main character is a school teacher, Miss Vorontosov. Surrounded by death, love and violence, she lives her quiet life, absorbed in her flowers, her children, her lover of many years ago—a spinster. Painting and music are her great comforts. Out of this remote world she steps every morning to face the children in the school ground (Miss Pop-off. Seven he's trying to kill us all with the axe for nutteen)—‘the jagged-edged world of rough reality’. And she loses herself in the personalities of these children; they sit on her knee; even the bully Seven is loved: ‘How I respect all this force in him and how I understand his violence.’

This unusual school teacher is a remarkable character of fiction: a naive and innocent spinster with a very shrewd eye: does she realise the intrigue between the teacher Paul and the beautiful schoolgirl Whareparita? Yes and no. And these inspectors she worships and fears so much: does she really take them as seriously as she makes out? Who can tell; the reader is certainly left with the impression that these inspectors live on pretence and make-believe; they may fool her with false flattery, hurt her deeply by their contempt of her unconventional teaching methods, but the joke

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somehow always is on them, in this novel. The all-powerful Director, of whom everyone speaks in awed tones is highly praised by one of the visiting educationists: ‘He is a man of sensitive principle’, are the words he uses. Here the tongue is dangerously close to coming out of the cheek.

Naturally, much energy is wasted on unsatisfied love—her memories, the Senior Inspector, the feeble Paul all manage to sap her and weaken her. But she is always sustained by the children, admires the core of their Maori character—the ever present aroha in their lives:

What are you crying for, Very Little One? I tip her chin.

That's why Wiki she's cheeky for me. Wiki.

It's always relationship they cry over ….

* *

…. Livers, all of them, in full measure. Not too much of what is commonly known as work, but oh, the living they accomplish. Because of this preoccupation with the personal relationship the work of many of them doesn't get done. But I cultivate and honour it ….

The few European children at the school, on the other hand, she pities: ‘I call white Dennis, a very obedient and clean little boy, who already at five has had a serious nervous illness … Such a little thing with such a big unknown burden.’

That just about sums up Miss Vorontosov's picture of her own race. She is not content with this idea of hers develop through all its stages: her own civilization, she sees in the Maori children a life force of which she wants to be part. She says: ‘…. I am as clay in the hands of this force, this something that told my delphiniums when to bud; this will that is frighteningly present in my infant room, deeply at large beneath the lid of orthodoxy and discipline …’

What does she give in return? A wild sort of motherly love; how much she would have liked to be the mother of all these children.

‘By the time the six lovely simple weeks of the summer holiday have drawn to their conclusion, my arms have become itchy on the inside to hold children. From the wrists on the inner side along the skin right up to the shoulders and across the breast I know a physical discomfort. If ever flesh spoke mine does; for the communion of hands, the arms stretching round my waist, and black heads bumping my breasts.’

But she has, in addition, a special gift of her own to offer them: the gift of reading. An astonishingly large part of this novel is simply about Miss Vorontosov teaching the children to read, and that is not a dull part: It is the most exciting adventure in the book. Teaching becomes, in her hands what it was in the beginning of the world, when the old men showed the young the sacred mysteries of the tribe; it becomes revelation. This is how she teaches:

What is Rangi's background?’ I ask the Head.

His father is a pugilist who runs a gambling den at the pub.

What are you frightened of, Rangi? I ask as he sits in a knot of others. (No artificial discipline in this class, only companionship)

P'lice

Why?’

P'lice they takes me to goal and cuts me up with a butcher-knife.’

I print these words on separate cards and give them to him. And Rangi, who lives on love and kisses and thrashings and fights and fear of the police and who took four months to learn ‘come’, ‘look’, ‘and’ takes four minutes to learn:

butcher-knife Daddy
gaol Mummy
police Rangi
sing haka
cry fight
kiss

So I make a reading card for him: out of these words, which he reads at first sight, his first reading, and his face lights up with understanding.’

She calls this the ‘key vocabulary’, and we see how she gets the idea, how she explains it to the Senior Inspector, to all the curious prominent visitors, and so forth; how she makes a vividly

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illustrated reader out of the children's own stories and vocabulary; how the children themselves are allowed to create everything they are learning.

Her teaching scheme becomes her life—‘my precious work guards me everywhere’, she says, and ‘I have built my tower of song’. Being a woman, of course, she does not do the scheme only for the children. Her other inspiration is the Senior Inspector, the tall grey-trousered immaculate father-figure who turns out to be such an unworthy recipient of the scheme. When he disillusions her, she is very sad for a while; does not even go near the children—‘I have to wait until my grand rules of loving flow back into me once more’. Finally she leaves the school, back to her old love of many years ago. And she in turn can be the child whose sore leg has been trodden ‘for nutteen’.

What are we to make of this unusual book? It has been very well received in England; in New Zealand, it is undoubtedly one of the best novels so far written. It is explosive, passionate, exciting all the way. There is a grand informality, a total absence of nonsense. There is nothing ponderous, heavy or abstract. Only love and ghosts are taken seriously. The language is simple, precise, sharp and evocative.

Unlike most New Zealand novels, it comments not only on private life, but also on work for a community. The Maori influence can take much of the credit for that. The idea of the ‘key vocabulary’ should be some challenge to educationists, even though the author's soft irony may sometimes tease their self-esteem. Her image of the teacher could certainly be an inspiration. (Still, what would happen indeed, as one of the Inspectors says, if all teachers suddenly turned ‘irreducible’).

In addition this book is the best study I have seen of the mediator—the person who has moved away from his own civilization to find comfort in another culture. The author describes such a woman in all her isolation.

Do I have any reservations about the book? Only this: that the field of vision of the novel is rather narrow. The main figure stands out clearly, but where is her background? European society becomes a caricature, shrewd and amusing but not fully acceptable. The beautiful descriptions of the Maori children, of Whareparita and her dead-born twins, of old Rauhuia who so loves his grandson,—they are all brief episodes and one feels that even this very sensitive pakeha could penetrate no deeper—the task of portraying Maori people as full major characters (in the way the Spinster herself is so excellently portrayed) must remain for a Maori author. Miss Ashton Warner is on dangerous ground standing between two cultures; no wonder that at the end of the novel Miss Vorontosov rejoins her own people.

ERIK SCHWIMMER

MAORI KNOWLEDGE FOR THE PRIMARY SCHOOL

The Maori People (Te Iwi Maori) by F. M. Pinfold, Social Studies Activity Book, A. H. & A. W. Reed, Wellington, 1958, 3/-.

There have been many school bulletins about Maori history and customs, but this is the first ‘activity book’. Activity books are a modern teaching device: they contain lots of quizzes to be filled in, space for drawings to be made or coloured by the children; what might be boring memory work is made into a pleasant game. (Here are three forest giants; please untangle: UAIRK, ATAROT, MUIR). There are many excellent illustrations and interesting diagrams; the book provides its own stories; the children have to add others of their own. In the end they have a book of their own which they will treasure, and if they are European, they will know more about Maori things than many of their elders.

This book has been designed for the Social Studies syllabus. Being the work of a private publisher, teachers are not compelled to use it, but we hope that many will.

Mr Pinfold, well-known to readers of this magazine was an excellent choice of author. The ‘activity book’, in the way he designed it, will be very suitable indeed for Maori children, and just as good for the European ones. It is gratifying to see the pages devoted to the pronunciation of Maori.