by Murray Crawford
This book comprises the supposed (and supposedly recently discovered) memoirs of Sergeant Rupert (‘Rooster’) McGurk, with notes by the ‘Editor’, and occasional marginal comments by a prissy female cousin who inherited his journal.
Both the title and the first Chapter suggest that it will be a roistering story somewhat in the spirit of G. M. Fraser’s Flashman series, especially as McGurk, like Tom Brown and Flashman, is an ex-pupil of Rugby School; but it becomes clear soon enough that the intent here is more serious. As a character, McGurk fits in somewhere between the saintly Tom Brown and the despicable Flashman, and indeed, his status as a reluctant virgin does get occasional mention throughout. But though there is one apocalyptic episode describing near success in achieving his lifelong aim, by and large that particular quest becomes subsidiary to a detailed consideration of the battles and the political arguments that featured in the Taranaki Wars. In particular, the book focusses on the feared and highly skilled Hau Hau leader Titokowaru, and his most prominent opponents.
McGurk is captured by Titokowaru’s forces and joins Kimble Bent as a slave and helper in the Hau Hau camp. Other historical figures we get a McGurk-eye view of include Von Tempsky, Te Keepa (Major Kemp), McDonnell, Whitmore, and Tutangi Waionui. The major battles in which Titokowaru featured are recounted at length and in considerable detail, as are the habits and customs of his followers.
The author is clearly passionate and well-read about the events and participants in the Taranaki Wars, and some of the wider issues raised by the colonising process. The fictional McGurk is portrayed as very much a product of his times in many of his attitudes and in his sometimes irritating choice of words in the writing of his ‘memoirs’, but he is also remarkably fair in presenting the supposed arguments used by Titokowaru in justifying his fierce, at times brutal, resistance to the tactics of the settlers and their government. McGurk points out that brutality featured on both sides, and he shows a decidedly enlightened understanding of Maori reaction to settler land-grabs and deceit. As an ‘eye witness’, McGurk is also able to comment on certain still controversial issues such as the facts surrounding the death of Von Tempsky, and the reason why Titokowaru so suddenly abandoned his fortifications at Tauranga-ika and thus ended the immediate threat to the settlement of Whanganui.
Readers expecting a catalogue of failed sexual encounters and dastardly behaviour might be a little disappointed by this book; but for those with an interest in the conditions of life in New Zealand in the 1860s, especially in the fortifications, tactics and the horrific or valorous deeds of the participants in the Taranaki Wars, the novel provides a fast moving, intimate and historically accurate, or at least knowledgeably speculative, account of this portentous period in our history.
Author: Murray Crawford
Publisher: Rangitawa Publishing
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