Tu, Patricia Grace, 2004
- New Zealand, #10
- Paperback, £0.69 from alibris.com
- Read June 2015
- Rating: 4/5
- Recommended for: the insatiably curious and tragically brave
This book exemplifies what I hoped to get out of this project when I started. It doesn’t have the startling literary genius of, say, Voss or The Bone People (though it’s not bad either, and as I am currently reading through the South Pacific, where populations are small and the quality of the works I’m encountering is…let’s say “varied,” I appreciate Patricia Grace’s unadorned prose more and more in retrospect). But it’s a book that I almost certainly would never have encountered without this list, about a subject previously entirely unknown to me. And I was able to put it into the context of the other New Zealand books I’d read, and come to it with a better understanding of the issues facing Maori people in the mid-20th century than I would have had before embarking on my literary mission.
Tu relates the experiences of three brothers who join the Maori Battalion in World War II and end up fighting together in a nightmarish campaign in Italy. In some ways it’s a typical horrors-of-war story. But it is couched in an exploration of the Maori people’s struggle to find a place in 20th century New Zealand. This struggle is voiced by the Maori leader Te Puea Herangi, who rejects the government’s call to fight for “God, King and Country”.
They had their own god, she said. They had their own king. They had their own country, too, but much of their country had been stolen. Why would they want to fight for the people who had stolen their country?
But the brothers have their own reasons, as did the hundreds of real young men who joined the Maori Battalion over the course of the war. Tu, the sheltered baby of the family, wants to escape from the stifling confines of school and city life. His older brothers, Rangi and Pita, have already gone, and he follows them. Rangi, the middle brother, leaves first; for him, the war offers the chance to be a Maori warrior like his ancestors, to reclaim an important ethnic identity that seems denied in modern life. For Pita, a sort of separatist who is greatly concerned about preserving the strict purity of Maori traditions, joining the army is a way to gain the respect of white New Zealand society without losing himself to their world.
The book tells the story in a largely non-linear fashion, interspersing Tu’s memories and diary entries from the war with third-person narration of the family’s pre-war life in Wellington. Grace uses the different settings as foils for each other, so that we can see the differences in the brothers’ attitudes to war echoed in their experiences in the city, and especially in the different ways in which they relate to a white woman, Jess, who becomes a key figure in all of their lives. Sometimes this juxtaposition is handled more deftly than others; though the backstory feels crucial, it is not as engaging as the war scenes. The Wellington scenes sometimes feel like a lot of set-up that could have been either shorter or more exciting (or, possibly, both).
But it’s a really good book. The research is meticulous and well-incorporated, and the story itself is deeply affecting. I didn’t even know about the existence of the Maori Battalion before I picked up this book, and I finished it feeling heartbroken and outraged and wanting to learn more. Highly recommended for all readers.