Tane’s War by Brendaniel Weir (Cloudink Press, 2018), 352 pp., $29.95
From the outset I was intrigued by the title of this book: Tane’s War. The idea of Tāne, the atua of the forest and the realm of peace, seemed to conflict with the idea of war – the domain of Tūmatauenga. This was enough to spark my interest to open the enticing red cover of the debut novel by Brendaniel Weir.
Tane’s War spans two time periods and locations: the Great War in Europe, and rural Auckland in 1954. The consistent character across the two storylines is Tane. We follow him in his youth as he flees from family shame and the law, travels by ocean to Europe as a soldier, and there forms a bond with a British officer, a relationship that must be concealed in a setting where manliness and heroism are prized.
A parallel story back in Aotearoa unfolds later in Tane’s lifetime, in the conservative 1950s, where the punishment for homesexuality is imprisonment. Here we are introduced to Briar, a teen who is sent to a training farm in order to ‘make a man of him’. The foreman of the shearing gang is Tane, now in his mid-fifties, who witnesses the awakening of feelings between Briar and a fellow shearer, Aussie.
The story oscillates between the two time periods, and as Briar and Aussie’s relationship develops we learn more about Tane’s past, gaining a deeper insight into his own conflicts. When the boys’ relationship is revealed, Tane is confronted with a choice that will change the lives of all those involved.
In many ways this book is written with authenticity. Brendaniel Weir draws on his own lived experiences, both as a member of the LGBTIQ+ community, and of sheep farming. The novel had its origins as a screenplay thesis towards Weir’s master’s in creative writing. Of interest is that he has written the main character as Māori, whereas Weir himself identifies as Pākehā. His explanation is clear: there is an under-representation of lead characters who are either gay or Māori. Weir aimed to demonstrate that it’s possible to represent another ethncity with respect and consideration – as he would like to see other writers represent his own identity. Tane’s Māori heritage is not explored to any depth in the novel, leaving the reader short-changed in a way, but perhaps in this case it is an appropriate and respectful distance for a Pākehā writer. While it would have added a stronger dimension to the central character, it safely avoids the risk of misrepresentation.
The book touches on many themes: shame, self-denial, exclusion, prejudice, violence. Love. Determination. It doesn’t philosophise much, but rather lets the reader think deeper into the actions and events should they wish. Racism is also present in places in the form of overt comments indicative of societal norms at the time. As a Māori reader I found these phrases difficult to absorb, particularly as they are unattended to in the storyline, however they are important in demonstrating another level of marginalisation as experienced by Tane.
The church comes briefly into the story in a sermon that speaks to carnality, gluttony, temptation and ‘unnatural sex’. This contributes further to the mounting conflict in the budding relationship between the two young shearers.
Tane’s War is written in an uncomplicated style, making for a comfortable read. Every now and then a gem of a description stands out in relief on the page, illustrating for example the thrill of riding a horse for the first time, the horror of the trenches, or perhaps a phrase that takes you right into the feelings of the characters: ‘He burned with the afterglow of sharing his secret’; ‘He stared at his bleeding knuckles trying to connect them with the pain he was feeling.’
This book is an important contribution to the diversity of literature in Aotearoa. While it is a work of fiction, it casts light on an area of history that has been largely obscured. In his background research for the novel Weir found few references to homosexuality in World War One, and evidence that some military records were destroyed for fear they would bring dishonour to families. The book will appeal to historians, LGBTIQ+ readers and general audience alike.
Tane’s War challenges the heteronormative thinking pervasive in our society by following not one but two central gay characters who demonstrate the torment of living with conflict in a world that can struggle to accept difference. In a way, the story is all about relationships; not just the development of the central figures, but also their interplay with others in the shearing shed or on the battlefield, or with members of whānau and community. Mostly, probably, it’s about relationship with self, and through these pages we are privy to the journeys of both Tane and Briar as they navigate towards their place of authenticity.
SHIRLEY SIMMONDS (Raukawa, Ngāti Huri, Ngā Puhi) is a mother of two young sons, Tamihana and Raukawa, and is a Kaupapa Māori health researcher and adult educator. She is dedicated to raising her children in te reo Māori with the values passed onto us by our ancestors, and to living a more sustainable life. Shirley has an interest in creative writing, is an avid reader, and spends much of her spare time in the garden.