Written in 1987, THE WHALE RIDER is a deceptively short book. Only 120 pages long, it’s a richly layered story dealing with several major social issues: family relationships, gender discrimination, generational differences, racial prejudice, loss of the cultural identity of indigenous tribes, ecological conservationism and modern man’s disconnection from his spiritual self.
Kahu is a young Maori girl who, from the moment of her birth, had a deep connection with her great-grandfather Koro Apirana, a powerful Maori Chieftan. Custodian of his people’s indigenous culture, Koro searches desperately for his successor: a boy who, for the good of all his people, will value and understand the ancient Maori traditions as much as Koro does. Kahu’s uncle Rawiri, who narrates most of the story, and her great-grandmother Nanni Flowers, see in Kahu’s spirit that which Koro seeks: the soul of the future Chieftan who will lead the Maoris of Whangara into the 21st century. But Kahu is a girl and, in Maori tradition, only men can perform the sacred traditions that keep the Maori people blessed of their gods and their ancestors.
From the delightfully subversive feminist Nanni Flowers to good guy Rawiri who, along with a diverse group of people tried desperately to save 200 beached whales (one of the several scenes in the book which had me sobbing out loud), to the serene, compassionate and otherworldly Kahu, the story is filled with remarkable characters. These include the Old Whale, an ancient sea-creature that has survived for centuries to ensure that Kahu meets her destiny of ensuring that the sacred Maori traditions shall live on into the new century.
The lyrical, almost magical, descriptions of the herd of whales’ journeys through the depths of the great oceans contrast beautifully with Rawiri’s simple, down-to-earth narrative. The boneless, weightless feel of the writing in the whale scenes recreate both a transcendent spiritual state and the sensation of swimming underwater. From the comical rendition of the constant bickering of Koro Apirana and his wife Nanni Flowers, to the well of emotion that has him spontaneously performing the haka to support Kahu at her school prize-giving, Rawiri’s gentle perceptions of his extended Maori family reveal the deep bonds of love and culture holding them together. “Family,” he says to his white friend Jeff, “is Family.”
Some of the Maori terms were, at times, confusing and the edition I read did not have a glossary of Maori terms, which would have been useful.
This lack, however, did not detract from the lush splendour of THE WHALE RIDER, a beautiful story of hope and promise.