Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider (1987)
Harcourt Inc, 2003

The Whale Rider is set on the East Coast of New Zealand, and that is, indeed, where Paikea is the tipuna ancestor, but this is a novel, not a narrative of myth and culture. It is a story of one fictional Maori family, primarily the story of Kahu (who comes of age in the story), her uncle Rawiri (who narrates the tale, mostly) and her grandparents.

From the beginning of the novel, Koro Apirana, Kahu’s grandfather is searching for a successor, someone who will lead when he is gone. Uncle Rawiri is telling the story from some time hence, but after a prologue he starts with Spring and, as it moves through the seasons, years slip into one another, time passes, and wonders happen.

It’s not a conventional narrative structure: some of it feels very traditional (in a “Once Upon a Time” way) but some of it feels very modern, with years fitting into the same overarching “season”. There are conflicting elements.

And this suits the story. There are conflicting elements socially, too, for instance.

Uncle Rawiri talks about the conflict within the group, about contrasting opinions about the role of women in leadership, like the story about Mihi, an elder woman.

“The story we liked best was the one telling how Mihi had stood on a sacred ground at Rotorua. ‘Sit down,’ a chief had yelled, enraged. ‘Sit down,’ because women weren’t supposed to stand up and speak on sacred ground. But Mihi had replied, ‘No, you sit down! I am a senior line to yours!’ Not only that, but Mihi had then turned her back to him, bent over, lifted up her petticoats, and said, ‘Anyway, here is the place where you come from!’ That was Mihi’s way of reminding the chief that all men are born of women.”

And more directly and immediately personal elements conflict, like the way that her grandmother loves Kahu, which conflicts with her grandfather’s impatience and frustration, rooted in the fact that he wanted a grandson who could carry his leadership forward.

Kahu, however, is ceaselessly devoted to her grandfather despite his rebuffs. Her grandmother jokes regularly that she will divorce her husband and she never makes that threat more animately and loudly than in defense of Kahu. Kahu, however, defends her grandfather just as fiercely: “‘It’s not Paka’s fault, Nanny,’ she said, ‘that I’m a girl.'”

Kahu is still looking for her place in the family and in the community, and this quest for identity is echoed in her uncle’s journey, despite their seemingly different ages/stages of life.

“So it was that in Australia and Papua New Guinea, I grew into an understanding of myself as a Maori and, I guess, was being prepared for my date with destiny. Whether it had anything to do with Kahu’s destiny, I don’t know, but just as I was maturing in my own understanding, she, too, was moving closer and closer to that point where she was in the right place at the right time, with the right understanding to accomplish the task that had been assigned to her. In this respect there is no doubt in my mind that she had always been the right person.”

The task that was assigned? I’m certainly not giving that away.

But I will say that when the season turned to Winter, there was absolutely no way that I could put down this book.

And even though words like ‘destiny’ can sometimes have me wriggling in my reader’s seat in discomfort, this story was too compelling for me to resist. By the end of it, I was sure that that task had been Kahu’s destiny. Every word was just as it should have been.

If I were a different kind of reader, I might have thought this book was “just fine”. But I loved Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. The idea of an ancient mother/wife whale taking hold of the narration for awhile didn’t annoy me in the slightest: it thrilled me. Because I’m that kind of reader, I loved this story.

Did you love it too? Or does the idea of a talking (or, at least, thinking) whale irk you?