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Reading Ransome… Writing adventure downunder

Paper given to the Arthur Ransome Society's biennial Literary Weekend, Durham, England, September 2001.

Thanks, Kirsty, for your kind words, and members of TARS for the invitation to come to Durham this weekend and join this splendid gathering of real children's literature enthusiasts.

I must note that it is the first time ever, for me, in fifteen years of speaking at festivals and seminars, to find myself facing an audience where the men outnumber the women, or at least about fifty-fifty? Usually, whether in New Zealand or Australia or USA, it's more like one or two men to every hundred women, or no men at all. I wonder if TARS isn't unique in that respect? Certainly, people in New Zealand were quite intrigued when I told them where I was headed. Radio New Zealand allocated me ten minutes on a daily arts programme, just before I left. Here in England, too - friends in the West Country, Oxfordshire, and Cheshire have shown me their shelves of familiar green books (with and without jackets) and one, a retired engineer in Macclesfield, proudly produced the Hugh Brogan biography given to him by his daughter. As a writer, I can only marvel at Ransome's staying power, the loyalty he inspired in his lifetime and continues to inspire today. Thank you for the opportunity to share your knowledge and enthusiasm.

I'd like to take you on a journey back to a island on the other side of the world; late summer 1978, late afternoon, lazy half-tide on a sheltered crescent-shaped beach, where a young woman can be seen rigging a small, clinker dinghy.

Passing families, holidaying on yachts, if they get close enough to see the rather patched cotton sails and the peeling varnish, would describe the six-foot, gaff-rigged boat as a 'bit of a character. 'But from the fairway, a hundred yards or more distant, the Marigold's golden topsides and white sails glow in the sun. She looks a picture: for all the world, some say nostalgically, as they drain one beer can and reach for another, like something out of Arthur Ransome. Sometimes, especially with autumn mists shrouding the surrounding hills and damping down the strong, sharp Pacific blues, those who know this island's long narrow harbour well agree that it could happily pass for a loch, or the Lake District at a pinch.

The dinghy rigged, main and jib hoisted, centreboard and rudder ready on the thwarts, the young woman throws a backpack wrapped in a capacious plastic bag into the bows. It contains her sleeping bag, spare clothes, swimming gear, thermos of tea and enough food for 24 hours. Her family, sunning themselves on the foreshore above the high water mark, with occasional dashes down the gravelly beach to cool off in the jade green water, watch in bemusement. They know only that she is going across the harbour and will be away for the night. Research, she had mumbled. Research for what? a daughter had asked. The answer was evasive: Oh, some project, a little guidebook, that's all. They know her for a one-time journalist. It seems feasible, if the overnight bit slightly weird, for a guidebook.

As the tide creeps in, Marigold begins to bump and roll against the rocky seabed. Faced with needing help to lift the heavy kauri dinghy back up the beach, or screwing up her courage and putting to sea, the young woman clips up her lifejacket, pushes the dinghy out into the shallows, climbs in, and yells farewell to those watching. Feeling very foolish, she puts to sea. With some difficulty, narrowly missing the wharf at one end of the beach, then the rocks at the other, she gets the centreboard into the casing and down, the rudder into the gudgeon, the sheets pulled in and, as she moves out of the shelter of the bay and into a brisk 15 knot westerly, the sails drawing.

All this is perhaps braver than might appear to the experienced and relaxed crews sailing past searching for places to put down an anchor for the night. She frankly isn't much of a sailor, then, in 1978. Her childhood has not been spent, like her husband or their daughters or the Walker children, or the enviable 'Captain Nancy'and sister Peggy, messing about in boats. Marrying into a sailing family, she's done some keelboat crewing but not much dinghy sailing, single-handed or otherwise, nor a Boatmaster course. These will come later.

Apart from the good chance of committing some nautical and highly public cock-up on the stretch of busy water between beach and destination maybe half a mile away, I knew there was a second and then a third potential for making a fool of myself. (Yes, that 'young'woman playing Swallows and Amazons was me, aged 37 - well, everything's relative!).

If I got safely without collision or capsize across the harbour (and that in the nautical rush-hour with wind by now a brisk and erratic 20 knots) was by no means certain, I was going to walk two miles or so across the island to spend a night on a deserted beach where around 150 years earlier, there'd undoubtedly been cannibal activity. Bones, human ones, were still being unearthed by the island's resident aristocrat and early Governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey, as late as the 1880s. Maori pirates living on the island, making a nuisance of themselves to passing canoes, had maybe 70 years before Grey been ambushed on that beach by mainlanders, been killed, eaten, and their womenfolk and children taken in slavery back to the mainland. So the story goes.

That night I felt the planet tilt beneath the heavens, watched the crescent moon inch her way across the sky, saw shooting stars, listened to the trees creak and weka (flightless native bird not unlike a kiwi) call to each other. In the dark hours before dawn I discovered there were glow-worms on Kawau, after a very close encounter with a possum. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to think of razor sharp greenstone weapons, fires, stakes and dismemberment.

Why was I there? Why did I crew, in friends'keelboats, on three successive real Night Races to Kawau each February between 1979 and 1982. Well, foolishly, in early middle-age, this one-time journalist and mother of four wanted to write this book, a novel about a family's nocturnal sailing adventure.

I'd never written a book before. I had absolutely no idea how to go about it, except that if I was going to have my family anchor at that cannibal beach, which seemed like a promising and dramatic idea, and the two children walk over the hill to get help for their injured father, then I had to do some active research, however foolish it might be feeling. I had no idea that a writer called Arthur Ransome had come to the same conclusion when he did a trip fifty years earlier in his 7-ton cutter called the Nancy Blackett across the North Sea, as research for a book subsequently published as We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea.

In fact (and I hate to admit it in this company), though 37 and discovering the golden age of children's books through what my four daughters were reading, I had very little idea about the works of Mr Ransome at all.

My then husband, growing up in Britain in the 1940s, and messing about in small boats and keelers in the famous Hauraki Gulf during the 1950s, was a Ransome addict; he still has a shelf of those green volumes with their distinctive, though now very tattered, jackets. Growing up in New Zealand a few years behind, I voraciously read any library book I could find about girls winning red rosettes at gymkhanas and aspiring to be actresses or ballerinas, and more Enid Blyton than I care now to acknowledge. I never got to hear of Ransome; according to Kirsty Niccol Findlay, they were published in Sydney in the late 1940s and available in New Zealand, but I never discovered them. In self defence, I might add that in those days, in early 50s conservative New Zealand, it was expected that only boys sailed dinghies or crewed on yachts. Females, after the war, were being busily encouraged back into kitchens and gentler arts and sports than sailing.

It is instructive now, nearly twenty years after Oxford University Press first published Night Race to Kawau, to see how it differs from Ransome's survival story, We Didn't Mean to go to Sea.

Certainly I read this book, along with K. M. Peyton's Windfall, the only two family sailing adventures I could find, when I was taking my first tentative steps towards becoming a novelist. The original manuscript accepted by OUP was 90,000 words long. I'd enthusiastically taken my cue from Ransome and not stinted on the sailing terminology. Well, I'd had to swiftly learn that arcane, though immensely practical, precise and beautiful language - what else did you use?

But by 1982, apparently, children couldn't cope any more with the traditional language of the sea. Much of it went with the 30,000 words that were edited out. A glossary was deemed necessary. A few incompetent reviewers tut-tutted about the jargon, far too difficult or boring or potentially off-putting for children.

I recently re-read We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea, and marvelled at the lack of condescension. Sailor's language came naturally to Ransome, to his child characters, and to millions of grateful child readers like my husband. He always maintained his love and knowledge of sailing was very largely due to Ransome. Were my readers, in the interests of a book theoretically accessible to all, denied a real opportunity to be introduced to one of the richest and most colourful specialised vocabularies in the English language? Now, I would say yes.

And what about the length of a Ransome book! We didn't Mean to go to Sea is 334 pages of text! I'm no mathematician, but at about 300 words a page, even allowing for the illustrations - that must be approaching around 100,000 words.

Again, inexperienced and naive as I was, knowing nothing of changing fashions in children's publishing, I'd again taken a lead from Ransome, and his quite lengthy accounts of sailing procedures, the Walker children's debates, John's internalised struggles and the many dangers and general progress of the Goblin towards the Dutch coast. In my inexperience, I went too far. Dorothy Butler, a New Zealand authority on children's books, winner of the 1980 Eleanor Fargeon Award, after being shown my beginner's manuscript, later said, 'I knew this new writer would eventually get published. She kept me reading her sailing adventure story for 30,000 words, without even getting the family on the boat!'

Yes, the manuscript needed serious editing, I know that. Wendy Harrex, who had worked for six years at OUP in England, was my first and best editor, and I've had some terrific editors with Penguin, Random House, Scholastic and HarperCollins since. My concern about the full 30,000 going is not with Wendy but rather with a publishing imperative of the past twenty or so years that says Short for Kids is Best. Thirty thousand words, they advise authors, twenty is even better. Tell the story, keep it moving, cut out anything remotely lyrical, descriptive, spiritual, meditative: let's just get the book out, make it cheap for school and library budgets and easy for teachers to promote and use as classroom 'texts. 'Ransome, other good reads of the thirties and forties, all those words. Kids didn't have TV and video games then. Well, they have TV and video games now and J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman have forcibly reminded us that kids will read longer books, gobble them up, know and appreciate a banquet when they see one. Rowling stood her ground, I believe, resisting notions of the sentences and text being too long and too complex, until she found a publisher willing to go against the trend. Good for them, and good for her; such confidence and trust in her own judgement, in one so young!The fourth HP book, as we all know, is a whopper, and in the words of the New Yorker rave review, despite all the hype, it's just 'wonderful.'

But in 1982, I was cut back to 60,000; in 1987 Alex, my third and best known novel, and first of what eventually became the Alex quartet, was rigorously cut back from 90,000 words to 75,000. That process, required by a new publisher at OUP New Zealand to make the book fit her costings, I did resent, so much so that at one stage I hinted imperiously I might take myself and my book elsewhere. I used much of the excised text in the second book, Alex in Winter.

I don't know a writer in New Zealand (except possibly Margaret Mahy, and she's published mostly in UK and America) who hasn't been sternly cut back or themselves pre-empted the inevitable and cut it to the bone. Regrettably and even infamously, we have found ourselves lately grappling with many forms of political correctness, and this reluctance to give kids both shorter books and a good, satisfying read, (or, cynically, to pander to the perceived preference for 'action' and spend no more than you absolutely have to on production costs) is one of them. Economic rationalism and the consequent utterly inevitable hardship for most of the populace, turns books into 'products', writers into hacks and journeymen, and generally makes people, even editors, mean-spirited.

So, if my sailing language, dialogue and overall word length were for various reasons cut back, even if I shared with Ransome a journalistic background and clearly a wish to see child characters and especially female characters empowered to solve problems by their own common sense and courage, does Night Race to Kawau owe anything to him at all?

Now I think, as my manuscript was edited and finally published, not much. There were intrinsic major differences, reflecting that shift that Victor Watson mentioned in his paper, from the rural holiday story to urban and sub-urban settings and themes. Thus, my story involves a family, with mother and father very much involved and not briskly manoeuvred out of the way in chapter one. The storylines of both books reflect their differing geographical and maritime settings, which I'll return to later.

The Goblin's young crew of four has to deal with handling, not a small dinghy on a benign lake in summer, but with the high drama of a heavy cutter in the open sea, with swift tidal flows, no engine, potential collisions with huge buoys and lightships, fog, the threat of grounding on shoals, a storm at night, squalls, near collisions with other vessels and always the potential for being run down by ships negotiating the North Sea.

Aratika's heroine, Sam, on a night race in the comparatively sheltered waters of the Hauraki Gulf which lie east and north of Auckland city, has to deal with fewer dramas: an unconscious father, reluctant mother as 'skipper,'a yacht under spinnaker out of control in gathering dark and worsening weather, risk of collision and shipwreck; also no engine, seasickness, the landing on a cannibal beach and, for both mother and daughter, overcoming that well-recognised female insecurity and dependency of the period which the 1970s feminist movement throughout the Western world set about changing.

No, I came along too late to be directly influenced by Ransome, even though at the time I read We Didn't Mean to go to Sea with pleasure and admiration for its uncomplicated attitude towards girls (or as we say these days, its lack of gender stereotyping), its classical structure, clever pacing and economical, lucid journalist's prose. I like to think that something rubbed off, of those attributes.

Fifty, even twenty years earlier, in New Zealand's children's literature, it was a different story. As in England, from the early thirties on, there were writers clearly influenced by Ransome, though in New Zealand's infant publishing industry we're hardly talking even double digits.

A handful of authors produced adventure and survival stories which predated Ransome - I'm thinking of the first and still one of the best, Silver Island by Edith Howes, published in 1928. In it, the three Lester children sail to an uninhabited offshore island, probably Stewart Island at the extreme south of the country, seeking gold. After their boat founders, they must survive on the island by their wits - though unbeknown to them, they are being watched over by their kindly uncle, who surreptitiously visits at night. Tho not specifically set in boats, but matching the classic English adventure story even earlier was Six Little New Zealanders, from 1917, by Esther Glen, whose name is still remembered by the Library Association's Esther Glen Medal for a distinguished children's novel. Or The Cruise of the Crazy Jane, and its sequel Camping with a C, by Isabel Maude Peacock, from 1932 and 1934, both involving Auckland children on camping and boating adventures, sometimes, or without, their parents.

Jumping forward to a more productive period after the war, there was Barry Mitcalfe's The Long Holiday of 1964, (boys on holiday adventures), The Freedom of Ariki by Rollo Arnold, in whose story of cousins having holiday adventures academic Betty Gilderdale, writing in A Sea Change, finds 'a suggestion of Swallows and Amazons. '1 Or The Sea Islanders by Joyce West in 1970, four kids surviving in a deserted family bach, or cottage. Or the three so-called 'Bush'novels by Ruth Dallas from the early 70s - especially The Big Flood in the Bush in which Robbie builds a flattie boat that enables the children to explore the local creek. A writer called Patrick Wilson produced an early book about P-class dinghy racing on Tauranga Harbour.

Later, moving from the late 1970s through the 1980s, Anne de Roo, Jack Lasenby, Joan de Hamel and Margaret Beames, notably, have continued to explore the opportunities provided by groups of children on holiday, meeting up with oddballs, hermits, smugglers and villains, finding Maori artefacts, learning that their shy and pale English cousins are not such wimps after all, together having adventures which confound and amaze the adults, solve mysteries and end heroically.

But recent, specifically sailing novels, novels explicitly exploring our relationship with the sea that surrounds us? Strangely, in a country which twice now has won the America's Cup, small in population but rich in Polynesian and colonial settler maritime traditions, only six of any note have appeared in recent years and I have been responsible for three of them.

In Fired Up, a talented young Auckland writer named Sarah Ell created a strong female character who, despite losing her boat in a fire, succeeds in that still very male dominated sport of crack dinghy racing. Bob Kerr's story for younger children, The Optimist, takes an unwilling boy on a sailing adventure in one of those very tubby, quaint beginner dinghies. Helen Beaglehole's Strange Company turns a family boating holiday in the Marlborough Sounds into a mysterious adventure.

And then there's my Night Race to Kawau, and Tiggie Tompson All at Sea, the second of my new Tiggie series, which has an extensive contemporary section set on a square-rigger and a parallel historical story set on a typical emigrant ship, doing that nightmare, four-month, non-stop voyage from London docks to Lyttelton, New Zealand in 1859. With William Taylor, in an e-mail book called Hot Mail, I also wrote about a girl called Jessica on a family yachting cruise across the Pacific.

And that's seems to be all. In the 1990s we have been, internationally speaking, more into fantasy with the still-flowering genius of Margaret Mahy, social realism with Joy Cowley, Maurice Gee, Paula Boock, Kate di Goldi, David Hill and William Taylor, science fiction with Sherryl Jordan and Ken Catran. Not much, for a supposedly sport-mad, yachting-mad people, with 2200 miles of coastline, abundant lakes and rivers, seriously into pleasures and adventures year-round on the water.

Well, I think there are identifiable reasons for this, something to do with our third millennium attitudes towards children, and even more to do with land and seascape.

The children first. Reading Ransome, or any of those earlier New Zealand adventure stories, is like a breath of fresh air. Nostalgia and common sense rule, for here is a world where the law does not require children to wear lifejackets on small boats and bike helmets at all times on all roads; where parents happily let them walk (often barefoot) to school, or ride bareback; where we did not have tight occupational safety legislation and sue-happy lawyers and privacy acts, and accountability in all things. If there was one over-used and tedious buzz word of 1990s New Zealand, as economic rationalism, market forces ideologies and the 'business model'took root and spread their poisons through society, even into education and the arts, it was this.

Behind all this accountability, of course, is plain old fear, of danger and harm to life and property, litigation, lawyers and large sums of money. Compared with the relatively care-free New Zealand life-style up to the turbulent sixties, our society has become, like yours, increasingly urbanised and multi-cultural (tho some would add increasingly racist). Paradoxically, society allows permissiveness while expecting accountability.

Hard-pressed parents, both working, both stressed, are more fearful for their children - unlike the calm and reasonable Mrs Walker, who goes through the motions you'd expect of a caring, sensible but not overly protective middle-class parent before she lets the children go off with Jim Brading overnight on the Goblin. Then, middle-class book characters lived 'normal', well-ordered lives and had abnormal adventures in their holidays; now, authors deal with the fallout from separations, transience, school bullying, child abuse, stranger danger, sexuality, neglect, too much or too little money, you name it, book characters have quite enough going on in their day-to-day real life, never mind the holidays.

Worse than that, authors who would put their child characters through great physical outdoor adventures run the risk of being challenged by irate adult gatekeepers: why were those kids out tramping alone in the bush without a cellphone or proper equipment? Out on the water without lifejackets and adults? Allowed to walk round that dangerous headland, cross that dangerous river, take a bus alone at night? Why are they not shown wearing proper clothes, or a seatbelt? Why are they using such awful language?

Yet we all know that really big Adventures are very largely caused by Acts of God like the weather or earthquakes or fire - with or without combinations of politically incorrect and inevitable human errors like lack of communication, misunderstandings, forgetfulness, clumsiness, failure of nerve and pure bad luck. In children's adventure stories, also, children are very often thrown by adults or their own innocence, ignorance or inexperience into situations seemingly beyond their control, at least initially. And they do swear!

So you have to be subtle and inventive and subversive to write adventure stories for children in politically correct and accountable times, or just bloody-minded and write it anyway. I have some knowledge of that. Two years ago, William Taylor and I wrote a book literally in e-mails called Hot Mail which we've heard many adults dislike for its raw language and some truly terrible jokes. Some school librarians have taken the line of least resistance and kept it off their shelves; it didn't appear in any awards short-lists that year, though it has been generally praised by the more informed critics and has sold very well in both Australia and New Zealand.

I know from reading extracts in schools that the kids love its irreverent humour, excitement and fun. If they then read it, they may even take the point that William Taylor's wayward and rough-tongued 14-year-old character Dan the Man significantly matures and 'grows up'during the story. He consciously reduces his swearing, and drinking, and possibly even smoking, learns that passing exams is important and puts himself at personal risk to help his e-mail friend's yacht limping in to port after weathering a Pacific hurricane; what more moral a 'message'could you want?

The second reason, I think, for the scarcity of down under children's adventure stories on nautical themes is that we lack the sort of relatively benign waterways like Coniston Water, the Norfolk Broads, streams, brooks and those small lakes you call gravel pits, where groups of kids can reasonably safely, and predominantly in summer, mess around in boats.

In New Zealand, children mess around with home-made rafts on creeks, but they do not mess around much in small craft without adult supervision on lakes, or rivers, or harbours and coastal waters. This has nothing to do with political correctness, or over-protectiveness, and everything to do with common sense. After a thousand years of Maori and two hundred years of European occupation, though admired for its beauty by tourists, New Zealand is still an unsettling, unforgiving and untamed country, lying on the complex junction of two tectonic plates in the earth's crust along the Pacific Rim of Fire.

We have earthquakes, little ones frequently, big ones occasionally, devastating major cities like Wellington and Napier in the past one hundred years. Wellington will go again, one day, as might Auckland, a rapidly growing city of 1. 4 million sitting astride an isthmus of more than 60 little dormant volcanoes.

We have very active volcanoes, like Ruapehu in the central North Island, which blew, spectacularly, as recently as 1995. We have extinct volcanoes whose previously violent eruptions - for example, the explosion of the Lake Taupo area 1800 years ago, recorded by the Chinese - have created major lakes, or thrown up islands out of the sea, like Rangitoto in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour. Our rivers are wide, swift and unpredictable, given to rapid rises and flash floods. Tho lacking snakes and other animal or insect dangers, our rugged and impenetrable bush deals with unprepared or inexperienced or plain stupid human intruders simply by getting them lost, or sends them sliding off down eroded gullies and muddy slips. The mountains deal you avalanches, or rock falls, or two thousand-foot drops.

As for that lengthy coastline, longer than the east and western seaboards of the United States- yes, we do have some of the world's most beautiful white beaches, lined in summer with the crimson blooms of pohutukawa trees, but the harbours are often full of sandbanks and extremely tidal, the coastline is mostly cliff-edged, with jagged or concealed hidden dangers and pounding, dumping surf.

The weather, prevailing from the south-west, or directly from the polar south, or from the vast fetch of the Pacific north-east, is, putting it kindly, unpredictable. Seasons jostle against each other, and often overlap. In one day on the Hauraki Gulf you can have them all, as we graphically saw on television with the Challenger series for the America's Cup, with American, French, Japanese, British, Italian and German boats struggling to cope with cool 25 knots winds one day, flat humid calms the next. The unpredictable and demanding Kiwi weather patterns are said to be a major factor in breeding sailors tough enough, and designers good enough, to win the world's major yachting trophy twice.

So the sea, even the lakes which tend to be deep, and rivers, flowing fast over volcanic boulders and hidden snagged logs, are not places for unsupervised children. Dinghy sailing tends to be an activity and skill learned by city children taking part in club racing, from the age of about 8 or 9 upwards, especially using those famous little P class yachts in which all our America's Cup crews learned to sail. They'll use a local beach or small lake, and since no-one lives more than about 70 miles from the sea and sport in New Zealand cuts across artificial social distinctions, boating is probably more accessible to ordinary families than anywhere in the world - though I suspect that relatively few Maori children nowadays get introduced to an activity in which their Polynesian ancestors excelled.

If not in dinghies, most New Zealand children learn their nautical skills in the family runabout or small keelboat, or going fishing with Dad, or canoeing with school groups. In an average classroom, asked if they've ever been out in a boat, usually two-thirds of the children put their hands up, even in country schools. Since the America's Cup, racing in all the small class dinghies is said to be booming.

But none of this makes for adventures by groups of kids allowed to explore, Swallows and Amazons-like, on their own. It perhaps explains why we have only a handful of not particularly distinguished Ransome imitators from the 30s, and why families or dinghy racing have prevailed in the few sailing adventure stories that have been written since, like Night Race to Kawau or Sarah Ell's Fired Up. Ransome himself, particularly with what importer Random House sees as his big three, continues to sell steadily: Swallows and Amazons averages about 250 a year, Swallowdale and We Didn't Mean to go to Sea around a hundred a year. Booksellers tell me they're largely bought by boys'schools for boys with high reading levels and by grandparents gratefully remembering Ransome's novels as the clean, wholesome, clean and above all safe classics they deservedly are.

Yet I do not want to sell my country's children's literature short, nor give the impression that our young people have not been well served overall with indigenous adventure stories, with a growing strong and confident emphasis on New Zealand settings.

There've been many other writers besides those I've named, other good, if not great adventure stories over the past eighty-odd years, but it wasn't until the 1980s that New Zealand publishing for children truly came of age. Adults began to promote New Zealand children's books of all genre with the same zeal and conviction as they previously brought to British and American imports.

It was no coincidence that the country's first doctoral thesis on children's literature studied the specific impact of landscape on contemporary children's writers. Diane Hebley's thesis, supervised by Dr Kirsty Nichol Findlay, was eventually published by the University of Otago Press in 1998 as The Power of Place.

In contrast to America, Canadian and Australian literatures, which are more preoccupied with landscapes that seem endless, empty and hostile, New Zealand children's literature, according to Hebley, is shaped by the country's inherently violent and dangerous physical characteristics, with two main consequences: the presence of seascapes as a distinctive quality and 'pervasive presence'in both children's and adult literature, and the volcanic and tectonic activity [that] remains part of people's consciousness through either the shape of the land and/or through sporadic manifestations. '2

None, she says, has achieved this more powerfully, and I agree totally, than Margaret Mahy in her 1986 novel for young adults, The Tricksters. The late Tom Fitzgibbon, lecturer at the Auckland College of Education, went further: 'The Tricksters contains the warmest and most vivid evocation of New Zealand seascape, shore and encircling hills since Katherine Mansfield's novella At the Bay some seventy years ago. '3

There is no higher praise from one New Zealander to another, and no better way to finish today, than to quote from early in The Tricksters as Jack, the Kiwi host, and Anthony, the English visitor, followed by the book's main character, a secretive and troubled girl called Harry, together walk down the track towards the waters of a recognisably Lyttelton harbour:

'Anthony had the pale skin of someone who had passed straight from winter to summer with no spring in between. He had the trick of looking around him as if he were remembering things, and so he already seemed at ease with the track down to the sea. Then, beyond the orchard and the native bush, they came face to face at last with the harbour, held in a circle of craggy hills in the cone of an old volcano. Its grey spaces and reflecting films of water at low tide made it look more like a prehistoric estuary than a commercial port, even though docks and cranes, small as children's toys, could be seen directly opposite. Thin soil lay draped over the bones of the land, in long, curving folds, falling, always falling, down to the sea and ending in a ragged coastline of tiny bays and indentations. Native bush grew darkly in the gullies; the gaunt ridges were freckled with the gold of gorse and broom. The two landscapes ran into each other and made a new countryside altogether (not pretty, but desolate, beautiful and timeless). 4

References

1)Gilderdale, Betty, A Sea Change, 145 Years of New Zealand Junior Fiction, Longman Paul, Auckland, 1982, p 168.

2)Hebley, Diane, The Power of Place, Landscape in New Zealand Children's Fiction, 1970-1989, University of Otago Press, 1998, p 15

3)Tom Fitzgibbon with Barbara Spiers, Beneath Southern Skies, New Zealand Children's Book Authors and Illustrators, Ashton Scholastic, Auckland, 1993, p. 114.

4)Mahy, Margaret, The Tricksters, Dent, London, 1986, pp 18-19.


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