By the Green of the Spring by Paddy Richardson (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2022), 312pp, $37.99; Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders (The Cuba Press, 2022), 326pp, $37
A Listener review of The Luminaries charged Eleanor Catton with being ‘another New Zealand writer escaping into the past’. It’s true that many of our authors have been drawn to write at least one novel set in history, but with such variety of intent that the actual escape seems the least of their motives. There are novels that shed light on past injustice, both societal and individual; that give new life to voices marginalised or erased at the time; that aim to provide a more nuanced context for the present; or that simply can’t wait to share an absolute cracker of a tale. There are novels that are sweeping in scope and those that are intimate and personal. Some are based on scrupulous research, while others play fast and loose with the facts. The past is less a foreign country than an entire universe of possibility.
One factor that remains constant when it comes to historical fiction is reader appetite. At the time of writing, Aotearoa New Zealand’s number one seller is Kāwai by Monty Soutar, the first in an epic historical trilogy. There are two other historical novels in the top ten (three if you count the hardback edition of Kāwai). One is the latest by Jenny Pattrick, a writer whom readers rightly love. The national sales figures for her 2003 novel, The Denniston Rose, are up there with The Luminaries, which had a massive boost from its worldwide success. Both have sold locally over 100,000 copies.
Both novels are also set on the South Island’s West Coast, along with what seems like a disproportionately high number of other historical (and contemporary) novels. The area’s attraction for writers might be explained by Melissa Kennedy in her review of Len Richardson’s book People and Place: The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island in History and Literature: ‘The harsh terrain and climate reject human intervention … and the [region’s] narrative is studded with ethnic, religious, political, legal and union confrontations set to a backdrop of mining accidents and failed business ventures in a depressingly repetitive manner.’ In short, there’s a mother lode of first-rate material.
Paddy Richardson chose the West Coast coal-mining town of Blackball as the setting for her 2017 novel, Through the Lonesome Dark, which follows childhood friends Otto, Clem and Pansy, growing into young adulthood at the start of the 20th century. Blackball is small, its society conservative and its opportunities limited, and all three friends dream of a life beyond. Richardson’s freshly published sequel, By the Green of the Spring, chooses to show that there are worse places to be than home. The First World War has begun. Clem has gone overseas to fight. Otto, though a naturalised New Zealander, has been arrested as an enemy alien and interned on Somes Island, a squalid former quarantine camp in the middle of Wellington Harbour. The first part of the novel comprises his letters to Pansy, sent but never replied to. Otto chronicles the physical and mental abuse of the internees, his despair and anger, and the loss of his precious idealism. He loves Pansy with all his heart, and he cannot understand why he has not heard from her. The island’s rugged natural beauty provides some solace, but Otto’s sense of betrayal, by Pansy and by the country he believed was his home, is hardening. Where he goes once—if—he’s released is unknown. But it’s likely he will go alone.
In part two, we return to Blackball, to Pansy and her new baby, Lena. She has married Clem, though she knows Lena is Otto’s child. Clem may know it, too, but he is away, fighting, and Pansy and Lena live with his parents, who have no idea. This first chapter recounts Pansy’s experience of Lena’s birth, and at this point, Richardson lets Lena take over the narrative. It’s a risk—from the mind of educated, articulate Otto, we leap into that of a very young child. The use of close third point of view rather than first-person provides a buffer, but the sudden switch to a small person’s limited awareness and vocabulary requires a significant recalibration of reader expectation. Richardson pulls it off by keeping on the right side of tweeness and convincing us that a small child would be able to remember adult dialogue word-for-word. We accept this deceit because of the skill with which Richardson develops Lena’s personality. Lena is a watcher, an astute and careful observer, alert to signs of insincerity or cruelty. She is a budding artist, determined to capture the essence of her subject’s character. She is absolutely the right lens for us to look through.
Clem returns home from war, one leg now an ill-fitting prosthetic, mind writhing with horrors. The gentle, kind boy has become a traumatised adult, emotionally distant from his parents and Pansy, and a complete stranger to Lena. From here, the novel moves more rapidly through the years as Clem, Pansy and Lena struggle to bond as a family, while finding their own place to stand as individuals. Richardson handles the time shifts with aplomb, a few words often sufficing: ‘Jimmy was at the station. “Ah, Clem, we thought he would pull through.” Alice and Jeanie and Ruby, the little boy, Michael, and the new baby. Nan … When Lena put her arms around Nan she found that she was taller.’
Lena’s transition from child to young woman is also seamless. As Lena grows, her observations mature also, and the emotional stakes intensify. Inexorably, we circle back to Otto and the consequences of Pansy’s decision to marry Clem. We know that time and place made any other choice virtually impossible, but while Richardson helps us feel sympathy for Pansy, she does not let her completely off the hook. Knowing who we are requires us to know where we come from, and a vast body of evidence shows that being severed from our roots causes psychological and physical distress. The novel reveals that cost most keenly in the character of Otto’s mother, isolated by language and pride, unable to grieve the loss of her son with anyone, not a single person.
By the Green of the Spring has so many big themes: belonging to place and family, the desire for self-determination vying with expectations of oneself and others, the cruelty of people as individuals and en masse, and the fragile but necessary nature of idealism. What stands out most, though, in this wonderful novel are the small things: the joy and comfort to be found in observing and creating, in nature and in the everyday kindnesses that lift and carry us all.
Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders is not set on the West Coast but in a location where the terrain and climate are even more resistant to human intervention—the Auckland Islands, 465 kilometres south of Bluff in the subantarctic ocean. As can be deduced from the title, the Islands were not the ship’s intended destination. In May 1866, historical records show that the General Grant left Melbourne on course for London, but fog compounded human error and the ship foundered on the Islands’ rocky cliffs. There were eighty-three people on board, mostly miners returning from the diggings with their wives and children. Only fifteen made it to safety. ‘[We] floated in two twenty-foot boats out on a turbulent sea and wept and cried and prayed but it made no difference. Every other person on the General Grant died that day.’
One of the survivors is a woman. Mary Ann Jewell, new bride of Joseph, able seaman and miner. Mrs Jewell has Joseph’s gold sewn into the hem of her dress, but much good it will do them. The Auckland Islands are rocky and scrubby, lashed by freezing wind and rain. There is no shelter, and the few supplies the group managed to salvage contain little food and no tools. The only ship’s officer, Mr Brown, is paralysed to the point of madness by the grief of losing his wife, and it’s down to big Irish miner, James Teer, to bring the group together. They need to find materials to make huts, and what, if any, food the island might provide. They need dry wood for a fire and a prayer that the one match left catches.
Sanders had scant reference material for this novel. Three survivors told their stories, but as the author says in her notes, ‘we can’t know the accuracies of their reports or what was missed’. Mrs Jewell is barely mentioned at all. Sanders’ previous historical novel, Jerningham, had memorable characters and a strong narrative, but Mrs Jewell soars to a new level of excellence, perhaps because Sanders was free to imagine her own version of this drama, unconstrained by any duty to faithfully recount history.
The novel’s foundation is a story of survival: what they ate, what they were able to make, and how they dealt with injury and ill health. Even in those days, most people weren’t naturally skilful or adaptive, and the group often fails. The details of this are fascinating, but what compels us most are the characters, the inter-group dynamics and their private triumphs and pain. Mrs Jewell is our narrator, and we see every man through her wary eyes. Some, like James Teer, are kind and dependable. Others are a threat to the group because they refuse to pull their weight, and to her personally because they see her as bad luck, a burden. One becomes sexually obsessed, but Mrs Jewell’s husband Joseph is mired in depression and she cannot rely on him to protect her. As the months pass and rescue seems increasingly unlikely, despair becomes the biggest threat to them all. Even Mrs Jewell, who has found reserves of mental and physical toughness, is vulnerable to dark thoughts. The Islands were once a base for sealers and whalers, but those days are gone. Who will dig the last survivor’s grave?
Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant is a superb novel, highly intelligent and riveting from start to finish. It exposes the fallacy in the maxim that where there’s life, there’s hope while at the same time proving the power of human resilience. We cheer for the survival of even the worst character because they are human like us, and we want to believe that we could have pushed through and not succumbed to misery. That we’d have what it took to endure.
The best kind of historical fiction sheds light on stories that matter, whether, as in Richardson’s By The Green of the Spring, they remind us of shameful moments in our history that could be repeated if we’re not vigilant. Or, they strengthen our connections to those who’ve gone before by bringing these people to life with all their human strengths and foibles, as Sanders does in Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant. Both novels are excellent additions to Aotearoa New Zealand’s enduringly popular historical fiction canon.
CATHERINE ROBERTSON is a novelist living in Hawke’s Bay and co-owner of Good Books in Wellington.