Once Were Warriors

Once Were Warriors - Alan Duff

This started out a book review, but it's also a bit of a personal essay, and it's not all pretty. And this is really long, consider yourselves warned :)


I thought about doing the 30 day book challenge, but there's always this one question in those kinds of things that make me pause. This time it was "A book that reminds you of home". And this book (and the devastatingly good movie made from it) are always the first thing that springs to mind.


Ironically the movie came up in a class this week (Cultural Studies class), and everyone turned to me as if to say "It's really overdramatised right?" And I had to tell them no, it's not. So I got stuck writing a paper on it, go me. And I can't, I just can't be academic and objective, because it hurts like a sonuvabitch. So I'm writing it out, in hopes that when I've spilled my soul out here, I won't have any left and I can write that damn paper.


If you don't know it, go watch this (movie trailer, under 2 minutes): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NV45ZuepZo


Now I'm not writing this to make anyone feel bad, just that all of us didn't grow up happy, or feeling loved, and home for me is a four letter word. I left when I was 15, not entirely voluntarily, but not entirely unhappily to be out of it either. I haven't spoken to most of my family in 15 years, and now that my grandparents are gone, I don't really have any reason to ever speak to any of them again.


So let's see, why does it remind me of home? Native minority poor, encouraged to urbanise and integrate into white society, but lacking the culture or skills to understand how to do so. Check. Institutionalised poverty. Check. Kids sitting in the car in the pub carpark with a bag of chips and a coke, if they're lucky, while mum and dad are in the pub drinking. Check. Preteen kids cleaning the house of broken beer bottles before school the next morning, after getting no sleep because the party spilled over to the house after the pub closed. Check. Kids sleeping under bridges, huffing superglue, because nobody gives a damn or takes them home, and oh well they're brown kids anyway. Check. Violence as a part of daily life - problems are solved with fists. Check. A complete disconnect from the kids own culture, because the above mentioned urbanization. Check. 


For background, Maori make up about 15% of the population of NZ, and are economically doing pretty well right now. But this book is set before that happened, before the resurgence in culture and language and self-sovereignty. Back when we were being encouraged to integrate and assimilate and self-hate and ... lots of other things ending in ate. The title alludes to the fact that once upon a time, Maori were warriors, strong, independent, self-sufficient and proud. But isolated in cities, doing unskilled labour, and drinking away their wages, urban Maori in the 70's and 80's had very little to be proud of. (The book is actually set in the 50's, but it's pretty timeless. The movie is set in the 80's).


The plot? Well, we have Beth Heke, who grew up in a quite different environment, in one of the few Maori settlements that retained it's integrity and connection to the culture - but gave it up for a city boy, Jake. And Jake the Muss (short for muscles) is handsome and charming, and he took her away to the city and they had fine children, but he's a mean mean drunk, and with no hope and nothing really to look forward to, he drinks a lot.  And to escape the pain, so does Beth.


The kids are more or less dragging themselves up, and not doing a spectacular job of it: The eldest, Nig, is 18 and joins a gang, just seeking to belong somewhere because he sure doesn't belong at home, and the next oldest is continuously being caught at petty crime, 12 year old Grace is struggling to still see the beauty of the world, with her battered notebook of stories and drawings, many based on Maori legends, and stuck with being a mother figure to the youngest ones. 


Two things happen that catalyse things for this damaged family: The story opens with the second oldest son arrested once too many times, and taken away to the foster care, in the hands of an old warrior who still remembers what that means. Now even Beth can't continue to pretend that her family isn't broken. Especially when the reason she can't be there to defend him and ask for him to allowed to come home, is because she can barely stand from the beating she got the night before.


And she tries, she really tries to fix it, but some things just can't be fixed. And so she falls back into the same patterns, the drinking and living with violence, until it all comes to a head in a tragedy that was more or less inevitable. Because some people can survive horrible things happening to them, and some can't, especially when they are young and alone and sensitive.


And I'll tell you now, there is a happy ending, but not in the "and everyone lived their wildest dreams forever after" sense, but more in a "rage, rage against the dying of the light" sense. Beth finds strength and reconnects with her true self, and her family and her culture, and finally does fix things, but it's too late for at least one of the children, and it's far far too late for Jake, who is just too damaged to save. But Beth finally stops going gentle into anyone's night and takes her life and her children's into her own hands, and you get a sense that maybe the light isn't dying after all, it's just the dark before a dawn.


Thing is, I could have been Beth Heke. My mother pretty much was. And I could have been Grace, except I was luckier than her. And when people say "oh you're from New Zealand, it's so beautiful there, how could you ever leave", I want to hand them a copy of this book and say "this is why". Except I don't, because they saw Lord of the Rings and all that spectacular scenery and all the happy brown people in the tourist ads, and they just don't want to hear it.  


And yes, I know things have changed, and a lot, but there's things you can't forgive, and places that even thinking about going to are painful, so I smile and nod and say "yes, it's very beautiful". I mean look at this picture: I used to live here, for the last couple of years before I left NZ, my old house is just off the left of the picture.




If you read this far, you're probably thinking you don't want to read this book, but really, it's good. There's a reason it's a NZ classic. But it's bleak, and violent and angry, and well. Maybe you should get the movie. It's not a fun read, and I doubt anyone who ever read it said they loved it the way you can love something that makes you happy. But if you think NZ is all sunshine and hobbits, this will give you a very different view. 


Warning though, there is some serious violence including (really don't click this if you are sensitive): 

an underage rape, and a suicide

(show spoiler)


And I am still too angry/sad to write any kind of academic analysis of either of them.