Some of New Zealand's leading fiction writers have been trawling the history books for inspiration lately.
This year we've had Owen Marshall fictionalising the romantic triangle that drove colonial pioneer William Larnach to suicide in The Larnachs, Sarah Quigley basing her novel The Conductor on a Russian musician enduring the Siege of Leningrad and Witi Ihimaera weaving fact with fiction to tell the story of The Parihaka Woman.
And now there's Rangatira, by expat New Zealander Paula Morris. For this novel the acorn didn't fall far from the family tree - Morris has brought to life her ancestor Paratene Te Manu, and his remarkable journey from his home on Hauturu (Little Barrier Island) to Victorian England in 1863.
Later in life, Paratene was immortalised in paint by Gottfried Lindauer, and Morris begins the novel with the Ngati Wai chief sitting for his portrait in 1886 while he recalls the triumphs and degradations of the dramatic trip.
From page one, Paratene is an engaging narrator, with a cantakerous and cheeky voice so strong and clear you can almost hear him talking.
Fourteen North Island Maori made the voyage in the depths of the sailing ship Ida Zeigler, organised by Wesleyan lay preacher William Jenkins who, presumably, is out to make a quid on the entertainment value of his human cargo.
Paratene, a widower, is motivated to join the expedition by grief, having recently lost his younger brother and his last-surviving child.
"I wanted to sail as far away as possible, where there was nothing to remind me of all I'd lost."
He's also flattered to be invited, and lured by the promise of an all-expenses paid trip to see the "riches and wonders" of England, and share his story with the people there.
"So there we were," recounts Paratene, "a group of strangers and relatives, old foes and old allies, stuck for a hundred nights in a room without light or air.
"Not a deck house, but below deck in steerage, down where they kept the bales of wool, kauri gum, and sperm oil."
Morris returned to New Zealand to launch the novel last week, at Art + Object in Newton, Auckland. There's an account of the evening on Beattie's Book Blog, which quotes writer Steve Braunias launching the book with a lament that it fits into the category of "historical novel".
"We have to call it that because it's true, but it seems a shame. Historical novel - the term itself is like mildew, something stale and unfortunate, old news. And it's even worse when you say 'New Zealand historical novel'. You instantly think, oh God, here we go, petticoats and pounamu, Penguin and plagiarism. You think, no fun.
"But Rangatira doesn't suffer from these suffocations, because it's so vivid, so lively ... What's true and what isn't is of no concern when you read Rangatira. You read it for the story Paula tells, for its momentum, its integrity, its ultimate sorrow. You read it because you believe in Paratene Te Manu ..."
I'll be blogging about Rangatira throughout November and will track down Morris for a Q&A next week. Christine is blogging about the Australian novel Autumn Laing this month, which is also inspired by history, though more loosely. Drop in on Friday, when she'll post her Q&A with the book's author, Alex Miller.
To be in to win a copy of both books, click here, and tell us what book is at the top of your Christmas wish list, and why.
Competition closes next Tuesday, November 15.
- Herald online