Migrations, by Rod Edmond, (Bridget Williams Books, 2013), 248 pp., $39.99
History begins where memory ends, although the line between the two is blurred: other people’s memories – parents’ and grandparents’, for example – are as much our personal experiences as our own; and the artificial construction of the past from the historical record is not always a public matter. Many people feel the need to push beyond the now and seek their roots not just in a culture or a place but in the lives of individuals – their ancestors. I find this puzzling. I know little about my own family history and have never been disposed, beyond a lukewarm curiosity, to find out. Looking back down the lines of inheritance seems to me an odd way of arriving at any truth about myself. How far would I go? Three generations brings fourteen people into the story; another three takes the total to 126. Do I explore them all or do I select from amongst them? And if I do select, how do I choose? The choice between bloodlines seems almost as arbitrary as self-invention, for which I would need no painstaking research.
The introduction to Rod Edmond’s Migrations explores such questions with some nicety. He finds a pleasing symmetry in his choice of ancestors: his paternal great-grandmother and his maternal great-grandfather, coming, as they did, from opposite coasts of Scotland: the one a child in a family fleeing poverty, the other a missionary intent on bringing salvation to the benighted people of the Pacific. He acknowledges, too, a personal need, as a newly retired academic, to re-evaluate the matter of his own identity in the later stages of his life. He frames this question in terms of further symmetries, comparing his own position as an expatriate New Zealander, committed to a life in England but constantly conscious of the country he has left behind, with the experience of his forebears, driven by God or necessity in the opposite direction. Thus, he sets out to produce a work that is part social history and part personal memoir. He will research the backgrounds of Catherine MacLeod and Charles Murray and will visit the places in which they were born and to which they subsequently moved. In Catherine’s case this takes him from the region around Ullapool on the shores of Loch Broom in the west of Scotland to Tasmania and thence to Melbourne. His pursuit of Charles leads from St Fergus in Aberdeenshire to Aberdeen itself and thence to the island of Ambryn in what is now Vanuatu and, ultimately, to various parts of New Zealand. His sources are the public record, the local people he meets along the way, his own observations and Charles’s diary written during his time in Ambrym. Where the methods of the historian fail to bring the past to life he makes judicious use of literature, quoting from novels and short stories that describe experiences similar to the ones he wishes to explore.
The result is a book that is intriguing and just a little slippery. At times, especially in the early chapters, the cool objectivity of the academic distanced me from Edmond’s personal journey and, given the re-creation of the past was short on specifics about the particular lives in question, I felt I was reading an interesting but narrowly focused piece of history in which the particular shed little new light on the general. However, once the book moved out of Scotland and away to Ambrym the story came alive in a manner that fulfilled Edmond’s stated intention on all counts. Charles Murray’s diaries and Edmond’s experience in the village of Ranon, where Charles established his mission, resonated in a way that brought new significance to both past and present.
Charles comes across as an intelligent and capable young man, sensitive to the people around him and willing to accept and to engage with their way of life as long as it did not directly conflict with his religious principles. In telling his story Edmond teases apart the relationship between missionaries and the local people, showing how it was not a simple matter of one culture riding roughshod over another but a complex interplay of interests. Nevertheless it was a level of religious intransigence that contributed to Charles’s downfall. He confronted Malneim, a local chief, about the role of a carved figure used in a ceremony of ritual rebirth that conferred chiefly status, accusing him, in effect, of idolatry. As a result, Malneim became angry and withdrew his support for Charles and the mission. The villagers became ‘stiff, & surly, watchful & inquisitive’. They attacked Charles’s goats, killing one of them (p. 111). His servants brought him food that was ‘raw or nearly so’. Malneim forbade his people, especially the women, to attend the mission school. Charles, already grieving for his dead wife, became paranoid and depressed and, within a short time, was relieved of his post.
Edmond’s own experience in Ambrym plays in ironic counterpoint to this story. The local people, who are now Christian, felt no resentment at the missionary’s earlier intrusions into their culture. Instead, they insisted on offering him what is known in pidgin as a ‘sorri’ ceremony. Edmond describes it thus:
It was near dusk when Willie Blong started the meeting by remarking that reconciliation was best completed in the light. The elder who’d taken me to Ranventlam on the first morning offered a prayer and then made a long speech in Bislama. Willie Blong followed with an apology to me from the group for the way their forebears had treated my great-grandfather. I told them how moving I found the occasion but there was no need for an apology although I was careful not to imply that the ceremony was superfluous. I emphasised that Charles had left as much because of his wife’s death and his own serious illness as for any other reason. For most of his time in Ranon he had been treated hospitably … When I’d finished speaking I was taken round to shake hands with everyone to seal the reconciliation.’ Gifts were then exchanged and food eaten. ‘By now it was completely dark. We sat on mats and chatted quietly under a sky richer in stars than I’ve ever seen. In search of my great-grandfather I had acquired another family and a further place of being. (p. 143)
It is clear from this account that Edmond’s own view or any matters of historical fact are not to be allowed to ameliorate the local people’s sense of their guilt. Edmond cites the explanation of the anthropologist Michael Young on the function of such ceremonies. They are ‘a means of people making and reaffirming their local identities’ (p. 146). Through them the missionaries are raised to the status of ‘mythic culture heroes responsible for initiating the current moral order, a transition from darkness to light and from war to peace’. This revision of the common take on missionary history resonates nicely with Edmond’s personal shift from awkward alien to grateful participant.
These pages, along with the later stories of Charles’s determined, pacifist ministry in New Zealand during World War I, are the strongest passages in the book, providing insights that are at once poignant and illuminating. Edmond’s largely barren search for his great-grandmother, Catherine, I found less engaging. No doubt it nicely illustrates the frustrations experienced by the family historian and provides a counterpoint to the much more fruitful search for Charles, but to appreciate the book in this way required a shift in my reading and a consequent sense of narrative ambiguity. Is this a travelogue about a man’s search for his ancestors? Or is it the history of those ancestors themselves? It could be both, of course, if the one reading illuminates and reinforces the other. At its best the book does just this but for much of my reading I felt that Edmond never quite revealed enough about himself to keep his search for his own identity on the book’s agenda. I am an immigrant: born in England and coming to New Zealand with my family at the age of thirteen. I understand how the layers of the psyche can be suffused with the assumptions and the atmosphere of the places one lives in. In Edmond’s case the layers that are revealed are few and cautiously peeled back. In the end, he shows us a picture of the retired professor: intelligent, observant, sensitive, well-read, liberal in his values and his politics. What I didn’t find was what he seemed to promise: his own experience as an expatriate New Zealander illuminated by the history of his family.
CHRIS ELSE is a novelist, writer and reviewer who lives in Wellington. He is a partner in TFS Literary Agency and Assessment Service.