West Coast stories as rich as veins of coal

By Jillian Ewart

Author Jenny Pattrick at her home in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Author Jenny Pattrick at her home in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

We woke on Wednesday morning to the news that Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries had won this year's Man Booker Prize.

Nearly 30 years ago, Keri Hulme won the prize with The Bone People.

Both books are set on the West Coast of the South Island. Coincidence or fate? What is it about the West Coast that makes it such an iconic setting for amazing literature?

Fergus Barrowman of Victoria University Press said: "The West Coast has a distinctive 19th century history and a community network that works for storytelling, and adding the exposure to the elements you get on the Coast, it makes a perfect setting for fiction."

Booksellers web editor Sarah Forster spent her childhood and teenage years between our West Coast and Western Australia - she really is a coal miner's daughter. "People tend to think of the West Coast as a special unspoiled place, that may be why people are drawn to write about it."

Book blogger Graham Beattie speculated, "I guess it is to do with the landscape, the wildness of West Coast weather, the history of mining, the isolation and the fact that until the Haast Pass opened in the 1960s there was no road access in the south."

Arthur's Pass road opened in 1916 and can still be closed by weather, as can the Lewis Pass road, constructed during the 1930s Depression.

One of our top-selling novels of recent years is Jenny Pattrick's The Denniston Rose, an appealing adventure story with a gutsy young heroine and an only-on-the-West Coast setting: a small mining town at the top of a steep incline reached only by coal trucks.

Published in 2003, Pattrick's book is one of New Zealand's most popular bestsellers, with more than 60,000 copies sold to date. It has a sequel, Heart of Coal. The effect of the book was such that tourists started to go to the mine area to see the historic places mentioned in the series, and a trail guide has attracted many to follow the Denniston Trail.

Harriet Allan, Random House NZ's publisher for the books, says the titles, now rejacketed, are still selling. "Both books are set in a specific part of the country at a time when we had a different lifestyle which has now completely disappeared. It is a picture of a fantastic working community by an author who is a fantastic writer about community, and how the machinery of the past operated.

"We've now got that depth of history in our own stories, and the Denniston Trail brings in tourist dollars. It is amazing that fiction can do these things."

Bill Pearson's Coal Flat, focusing on characters and events in a small West Coast coal mining town, was published in 1963 and is Pearson's only novel, though he was a well-known literary commentator and essayist at the time. With the recent publication of Paul Millar's biography of Pearson, No Fretful Sleepers, renewed attention has been drawn to the book, believed to be set in the mining community of Blackball.

Keri Hulme's novel The Bone People is unmistakably set on the remote beaches of the Coast, with the changeable weather of South Westland. First published by women's collective Spiral and later picked up by local and international publishing houses, The Bone People was something of a cause celebre when it won the Booker Prize in 1985. (One of the judging panel was said to have disagreed emphatically with the decision.)

A more recently published novel set on the West Coast is Charlotte Randall's Hokitika Town (Penguin, 2012), set in the Gold Rush of 1865. It is endearingly told through the eyes and language of young Maori orphan Halfie who has ended up in Hokitika scrambling for survival by washing dishes and doing errands. In her review of the book for the New Zealand Herald, Paula Green said: "He is the epitome of goodness and views the adult world of drunkenness, double-crossing and lust through his innocent childhood filters."

Earlier this year, The Luminaries' publisher, VUP, launched a book of stories by Amy Head set on the West Coast and appropriately titled Tough. It will be the perfect answer to customers wanting more West Coast literature. The NZ Book Council said: "The book dexterously shifts between present and historical experience, and dramatically focuses the West Coast landscape. The book also ushers into its borders those living on the margins of society."

• Reproduced courtesy of Booksellers NZ "The Read".

- NZ Herald