Tuesday 25 August 2020

Jerningham by Cristina Sanders (Cuba Press, 2020)

The Wakefields haven’t gone down well in history, more notorious for scandals like Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s abduction of a 15-year-old heiress than celebrated for any of their achievements. Despite the evidence of Point Jerningham, I hadn’t even heard of Edward Jerningham Wakefield (apparently the Wakefield males of Edward’s line all shared the same first name) so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. Drawn in by the striking cover by Rakai Karaitiana, what I found was a colourful and detailed picture of 1840s Wellington.

When we read and think about the 1840s, our attention is often drawn to the north: the signing of Te Tiriti at Waitangi, the rowdy town of Kororāreka, the fledgling settlement of Auckland.  In Jerningham, Sanders presents us with the shiploads of bewildered new settlers who had left behind everything they knew and sailed across the world, fooled by the rhetoric of the New Zealand Company’s advertisements into believing that their land purchases were legal, and expecting a more established community than the cluster of tents and ramshackle buildings on the windswept beach of Pito-one.   

Some of the characters in this book are real: Colonel William Wakefield, Captain Arthur Wakefield, Charles Heaphy, Ernst Dieffenbach, Te Puni, Te Rauparaha, Te Rangihaeata – and, of course, Jerningham himself. Others, including the narrator, Arthur Lugg, are not.

Edward Jerningham Wakefield from the frontispiece of his book Adventure in New Zealand, Christchurch, Whitcombe & Tombs, 1908 (First published in 1845). Artist unknown.

Arthur Lugg arrives on the Aurora, one of the first settler ships. He is a bookkeeper, the son of a clergyman, and only recently rich, thanks to an inheritance received by his wife who died soon afterwards. There is no hint of foul play here – Arthur Lugg is a completely upright Victorian chap, conservative, a little clumsy but generally well-liked, intensely loyal to the Queen and the Crown, and a hard worker who terms himself the “invisible man” as he slogs away on paperwork for the burgeoning Wakefield settlements. Nevertheless, despite or perhaps because of the difference in their temperaments, he falls under the spell of the wild and mercurial Jerningham. He also falls in love on the journey out with a young woman called Ada Malloy, but due to various machinations – not of his making – ends up married instead to the quiet and beautiful Dorothy, oblivious to the rumours that swirl around her.

With Jerningham, Arthur Lugg travels to Kāpiti, Wanganui (as it was then) and up the Wanganui River to the central North Island, as yet hardly glimpsed by Europeans. After a personal crisis, his travels also take him to Nelson in time to be embroiled in a crucial point in the history of that new settlement and of Māori-Pākeha relations.   

Wellingtonians (especially) will be fascinated to trace the early days of today’s city as familiar streets are formed and buildings erected. Sanders treats her material with confidence, and her sailing experience on tall ships shows in her descriptions of weather and in the often frightening and totally believable scenes on board small and large boats. On land, earthquakes add to the general sense of unease. We see the growing tension and distrust between the New Zealand Company and Governor Hobson, the constant presence of the surveyors, the pressure on the Company to prepare for the hundreds of settlers they have already – with whatever motives and degree of truth - enticed to their unformed towns and the misunderstandings and illegal land dealings that will lead to the disaster of the Wairau Affray and later confrontations. 

Point Jerningham, at the far end of Oriental Bay, will now serve for me as a reminder of a young man who was deeply flawed but drew people to him – both Māori and Pākeha, according to this retelling – with his combination of brilliance, good humour, impulsiveness, exuberance and daring.   

Sanders writes intentionally through the lens of the 1840s and points out In her author’s note at the end of the book that “the attitudes to race, culture, gender and class.. are not designed to offend or provoke, but to illustrate the common perspective among 1840s colonials.” However Arthur Lugg, her narrator, comes across as perhaps more enlightened than some. He is curious about the Māori whom he meets in Wellington and on his travels with Jerningham, in awe of the magnificent physique of the men and the beauty of the women. He tries to learn te reo and tell us that his accent improves over time, and worries that the New Zealand Company’s land purchases are illegal. He even owes his life to Te Puni, who rescues him from drowning.

This is Cristina Sanders’ debut novel, released by Wellington publishers The Cuba Press and printed by Wakefield Printers, both of them – in a nice piece of synchronicity – located on Wakefield St. She is also the winner of the 2019 Storylines Tessa Duder award for an unpublished manuscript. That book will be published by Walker Books next year, and I’m sure there will be more.

To hear Cristina Sanders talking about Jerningham, the Wakefields and the messy, fraught, flawed and often ugly business of colonialism, listen to this interview on Radio NZ, recorded on the day of her book launch at Unity Books.

Roseneath, Oriental Bay, Point Jerningham (in foreground) and Point Halswell, Wellington New Zealand (russellstreet / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Enemy at the Gate

This is the other children's novel (along with The Great Chocolate Cake Bake Off) that I've recently re-released under the Pipi Press imprint. 

A deadly disease is sweeping the world and nobody knows how to stop it. Twelve-year-old Tom Mitchell can't even see his best friend Charlie. He wonders when the lockdown is ever going to end. And then things get worse. It might all sound familiar, but this is New Zealand in 1937-38. The disease is infantile paralysis, or polio, and nobody knows where it will strike next. 

When Enemy at the Gate was first published, something strange and unexpected happened. As soon as it was in the shops - or actually sooner; the first time was a conversation I had with one of my children's teachers - people started coming up to me to share their own stories of polio. Almost everyone over a certain age - old enough to remember the 1950s or early 1960s - knew someone who had been affected by polio. Some had even had it themselves. 

Whenever I have taken this book into schools, I have said to the students: in the polio epidemics, schools were closed - do you think that would be fun? There are always a lot of enthusiastic yesses. Then I explain that as well as schools, movie theatres and swimming pools were closed, you couldn't visit your friends' houses - and you still had to do school work! 

This has always felt like describing history - now it's describing their own lives. 

I had already planned to release this title last year, but earlier this year under Level 4 lockdown, I had a number of requests from teachers asking where they could buy a copy. They were keen to use it as a "compare and contrast" text with their students, but I hope it's also seen as a good classroom read. 

Big thanks to my wonderful editor Sue Copsey (who also edited The Telegram) and to designer Cheryl Smith who produced this beautiful cover. I love its unsettling sense of yearning and uncertainty.

Thank also to the invaluable NZ children's lit website The Sapling for this review

You can find Enemy at the Gate in bookstores, including The Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie, Wellington. 


Monday 17 August 2020

The Great Chocolate Cake Bake Off

 I've just re-released two of my children's novels, and this is one of them. 

The Great Chocolate Cake Bake Off was first published some years ago and has been out of print for a while, but it's a book that people often tell me they loved reading. I've even had people contact me to say they loved it so much as a child, they want to know where to buy a copy now. (And now they can!)

Some of my favourite emails include: "I absolutely loved your book; The Great Chocolate Cake Bake-Off. It was the best story I’ve ever read" (from a 9-year-old boy) and "Chocolate Cake is still the best book out there!!!" (from an 11-year old boy). 

Big thanks to my wonderful editor Sue Copsey (who also edited The Telegram) and to designer Cheryl Smith who came up with this gorgeous and delectable cover. 

You can find it in bookstores including The Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie, Wellington.