Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pākehā history by Peter Wells (Massey University Press, 2018), 336 pp., $39.99
Peter Wells – novelist, film director, historian, co-founder of the Auckland Writers Festival – uses his life story as a lens to track through several generations of his family. His memoir is book-ended by a new young life, Oliver, and the death of Wells’ mother Bess. Clear-eyed about his family background of English immigrants to New Zealand in the nineteenth century, Wells also examines the sources of his creativity.
Each level and stage of the narrative focuses on a particular aspect of New Zealand history: the hopes, failures and successes of this group of Pākehā immigrants. From these specifics, the memoir opens up a more general understanding of how and why we live now in this ‘uneasy present’ (p. 27).
In 2016 Bess’s great-niece Geraldine Reader visited New Zealand from San Francisco with her partner Nicole Conway and their eight-month-old son, Oliver. By then Bess was 100 years old and suffering from dementia. Wells set up an afternoon tea for Bess and the lesbian couple, worrying that his mother’s out-dated values would affect the meeting. At first he himself felt distanced from Oliver and his ‘slobbery bread roll’, but soon felt a tug of the heart. Bess sat and commented only in the testy way of the elderly: ‘He’ll have bandy legs.’ Suddenly, however, she was more engaged. A photo shows hands entwined, Bess intent on Oliver, his liquid gaze unfocused – an image of the past next to the future that ‘said something about continuity, survival, change’ (p. 64).
The letter to Oliver – the memoir – sparked into life. Wells realised that in his varied works he had always tried to comprehend the family stories Bess had told him since he was a child. In the way of family mythology, those inconsistent communications from and about the past could hold the truth somewhere.
After his mother had gone into a resthome Wells discovered caches of letters in her house – correspondence from as far back as the 1840s when her family, the Northes, left Cornwall for New Zealand. He felt he was a custodian of the past. Now here was Oliver, the family’s future.
Wells’ research examines and speculates, offers his own thoughts and conclusions about these ordinary folk who protected secrets about their desires and ambitions; how each managed or failed to manage, or was obstructed or borne up.
The author’s own life was greatly moulded by growing up in Napier in the 1950s. He describes recognising he was gay, coping with disapproval from both parents, endeavouring to navigate the homophobia of the 1970s and 80s, his brother Russell’s death from Aids, his father’s death – all of which shaped his career as a writer. It must also have been shaped by his parents’ secrets. While his father Gordon was fighting in World War II, Bess had an affair with an American serviceman. And rather than being the hero his son had assumed, Gordon Wells more probably suffered from battle stress and was sustained by his comrades.
Bess’s stories to young Peter included horrors from the Hawke’s Bay quake of 1931 when, as a 14-year-old, she had heard the voices of those entombed under the wrecked hospital. This image is set beside the absurdity of the family’s best teacups surviving the shaking by sailing around the room on the genteel tea trolley in a dance with the piano.
Peter’s ‘formidable’ grandmother, Jessie Northe, born in 1883, was ‘a snob’. In a marvellous sharp passage, Wells defines snobbery as a trait of the ‘socially anxious’ who are on guard to cover up their inferior origins. He ascribes much local snobbery to the way the Industrial Revolution overturned the established class system and spilled vast numbers of the impoverished across the world in search of financial security.
The book tracks back to Jessie’s mother Polly, whose father was John Summers. Family lore had it that John was ‘eaten by Maoris’ in the New Zealand Land Wars. In reality he was an army deserter who also abandoned his wife and small daughters. Wells gingerly, sadly, touches on the toxic side of the male ethos, the burden borne by the sons of Empire in the Anglo-Boer War, World War I and onward. How has this nineteenth and twentieth-century encumbrance shaped Pākehā mentality, and how has that in turn impacted on Māori? Questions shiver in the reader’s mind. But this is not a book of blame. It tries to understand people in the context of their era.
Family secrets continue to be uncovered. John James Northey (over the generations the spelling changed), Wells’ apparently successful great-great-uncle, was a proud and argumentative shipwright who committed suicide. Old newspapers articles and letters lead Wells to speculate about a violent drunken attack that led to public exposure followed by severe depression.
Dear Oliver’s message is: pan through the fool’s gold of family myth for nuggets of truth. Where and what do we come from? How have early ambitions or fears affected the family? Other marvels are to see how success, good character or luck raise one branch of a family upward, while failure, weak character or bad luck make another fall. As Wells asks on page 58, ‘How does a family work?’
Wells particularly shines when he describes the qualities of the epistle, the handwritten message. The notion and device of the letter holds the memoir together. He discusses the etiquette of letter writing, and handwriting itself – what it felt like to be taught that ‘essential lifetool’ (p. 272). He includes a curious anecdote (p. 133) about one Richard Mercer who regularly wrote quaint letters to the young Jessie, letters that these days would raise concerns about paedophilia. This reviewer is disturbed only by suspecting that Mercer was trying, not very well, to emulate Lewis Carroll’s quirkiness with words and ideas and thereby gain intellectual status in Napier.
Wells’ own letters are highlights and road-markers on the narrative route. After Jessie’s death he realised his image of her had been false, and wrote her a faux-letter. Now he openly faces his youthful arrogance. It is a rare memoirist who can unblinkingly describe his or her own mistakes. Dear Oliver’s readers might feel a curious tenderness at Wells’ forgiveness of his own folly, and hope the same courage will be available if and when …
Wells is kind-hearted and ruthless. He is analytical and interested. He confronts highly personal material with that mix of emotion and intellectual observation that I believe is known to any true writer (any creator?). We read his own coming-out letter to his parents, from London in 1970, and hear of Bess’s ‘dismal response’. But years later, having saved it all that time, Bess handed it to Peter, calling it a ‘wonderful letter’. How do families work?
The book is an intense self-examination. The author came to know there were two Peters. One was the child who believed his mother, from whose stories he formed the terrain on which he built his literary success. The other was the man who had to take over her life in her old age, forgiving her and himself, so she could continue to function.
Near the end he wonders if he is truly explaining the connection between a gay son and his mother. He feels that writing the memoir is a form of undressing, but paradoxically, that writing is also the presentation of a façade. And right there is the beauty of this book. Wells knows how words shape, reshape and cloud the truth. He does his best to push through the shadows. He is speaking to his mother, and to young Oliver: they may both be empty spaces, unable to hear or comprehend, but the writer’s words are there to be seen.
There are many lovely aspects to the design: full pages given to key statements and chapter headings, gorgeous photos of the people and the letters. It is a long book, which will be why the margins are not more generous, its only flaw. And the length is necessary given the complexity of the subject matter. First, there is the breadth of thought Wells gives to ‘the varied hues of truth’ as to why early Pākehā arrived here and the ways they set about bettering themselves. Second, there is his non-judgemental view of his mother’s foibles and faults during the complicated years from the 1960s, when older values were eroding despite all efforts to shore them up.
The reader is left with affirmation, about the value of the individual ordinary-man and ordinary-woman, and a sense of what lies under the tarnish of time, the hoard waiting for discovery and reassessment.
BARBARA ELSE is co-director of the TFS Manuscript Assessment Service. Her awards include an MNZM for Services to Literature, and the Margaret Mahy Medal. She has held the Victoria University Writing Fellowship and the University of Otago College of Education/Creative New Zealand Children’s Writing Fellowship. Her latest book is Go Girl: A storybook of epic NZ women (Penguin, 2018).