by Joanna Orwin
The two strong women who are the major protagonists in this novel, as well as the experiences they share, are based (the author explains) on actual early settler figures and events. The setting for the action is mostly northern Kaipara in the 1850s through to the 1880s, though there are also scenes set in Nelson and Auckland.
The physical difficulties faced by these women – one, Lydia, is a Scot, the other, Eliza, is from south Yorkshire – are detailed, and the tension that exists between the two provides a theme that runs throughout the book. Lydia has a shameful secret that she fears Eliza either knows or will be able to guess – a secret concerning the paternity of her youngest child, a daughter. Both women are married and have children, and the relationships between the women and their families also play a major part in the story.
As their personal histories unfold, the reader is also kept informed of important developments centred on the ever-increasing number of new settlers, and their relations with the local Māori.
Carving out clearings from the forests on the banks of the Wairoa River, the newcomers engage in a variety of activities, including tree-felling and milling, gum-digging, growing cash crops and raising dairy and beef cattle, and establishing other commercial enterprises of one sort or another. Naturally, such activities result at times in considerable and permanent environmental degradation. Clearing the forests leads to a great increase in the number and severity of floods, for example, and the use of fire causes the devastation of local wildlife as well as destroying centuries-old stands of kauri trees. Some of these occurrences are described in vivid detail.
Although the personalities of the two central women in the story and those of their families, are imagined, it seems that their main movements and life events closely follow those of the historical figures on whom they are based. Lydia develops a personal relationship with the wife of the dominant Māori leader in the area, Te Tirarau; and her daughter, Hannah, finds comfort in the company of the children of Te Tirarau’s people. Meanwhile Eliza pursues life downriver, becoming an astute commercial operator and rising through the social ranks – the ambition that impels her.
There are scenes and descriptions in this book that are not only involving but sometimes very moving. One of these is an affecting description of the grounding of the ship that brings Eliza and her family from Nelson to Auckland – a scene that also informs the reader of Eliza’s extraordinary courage and determination. Others revolve around the unforgiving and cruel treatment by Lydia’s (second) husband towards Hannah, her illegitimate daughter. Then there are those that demonstrate the developing sympathy and understanding between Lydia and Eliza.
This is a book that many will find interesting mainly because of the historical detail; but others will likely become absorbed by the contrasting personalities and fates of Lydia and Eliza. It is also a well-presented book, clean and error-free, and altogether a worthy addition to the ranks of New Zealand historical fiction.
Author: Joanna Orwin
Publisher: Joanna Orwin
Available: Trade paperback, available at independent bookshops or from Nationwide Books Distributors