Wood has always held a mysterious fascination for me – mysterious inasmuch as I can never quite fathom what it is that I find so appealing. Is it the grain? The texture? Or the capacity (in skilled hands) for it to be made into something functional — sailing vessels, basic furniture and everyday utensils — and also its natural beauty in the form of exquisite designs in churches, palaces, universities, stately homes, contemporary homes and gardens.
I am a person who wanders around tree(s) and ponders on the historical events taking place whilst it grew from sapling stage to its current state. Redwoods, Oaks, Mahogany, Rimu, and even driftwood, knotted and gnarled by life and water, can leave me quite overwhelmed.
So the intriguing title The Sixteen Trees of the Somme set off my internal musings of Nature standing firm amidst man-made destruction, and it made me keen to read this book. I wasn’t disappointed!
This is the story of Edward — a young Norwegian living on the family farm with his emotionally distant grandfather Sverre. Edward’s life has been emotionally stunted by both his upbringing — his grandfather fought in the German Army during the Second World War, a fact that sets the family apart from the other villagers — but also by being the only survivor in the tragic and inexplicable deaths of his parents. His own disappearance at that time and subsequent recovery four days later when just a toddler is an unsolved mystery. Edward doesn’t fit in and isn’t particularly happy with his solitary condition.
After the sudden death of his grandfather, Edward has a talk with the local minister who provides him with the basic bones of his family history including the introduction of Einar Hirifjell, Sverre’s brother, a master cabinetmaker who had lived and supposedly died in France in 1944 (after a brief period of time spent in the Shetland Islands). How is it then that a dead man manages in 1979 to have a magnificent flame-birch coffin delivered from the Shetland Islands for Sverre? How can such workmanship not be Einar’s?
So, we journey with Edward back in time from 1980s Norway, the Shetland Islands and France to a particularly brutal First World War Battle in the Somme which is the catalyst for the next sixty years of history that will uncover the mystery of Edward’s tragic family losses.
Lars Mytting has produced a tale as historically epic as the circles in the life of, say, a giant Sequoia. And, yes, the sixteen walnut trees of the Somme are hugely significant to Edward in uncovering his heritage but you have to keep reading.
I really enjoyed the fictional story set amidst the reality of history and was very grateful to have the pictorial maps at the front of the book to give me some sense of distances in Edward’s travels.
I’m almost certain that this is the first love story I have read written from a male perspective. I did find it a little difficult to emotionally connect with any specific character as they are, for the most part, discussed in reminiscences by other characters in the novel to explain the sequence of events. Emotions are suppressed in striking contrast to the vivid descriptions of scenery, weather, and military battles and of course, those undefeatable walnut trees!
Nineteen forty-seven was hell for little bony girls like me who couldn’t wear the New Look. Then again, 1947 was hell for any girl who would rather work calculus problems than read Vogue, any girl who would rather listen to Edith Piaf than Artie Shaw, and any girl with an empty ring finger but a rounding belly.
It was a surprising, rabbit-warren of a novel, following the interconnected paths of two very different women, and spanning both world wars. One path is the story of Charlie St Clair, the little bony girl with the rounding belly, on her way to an Appointment to deal with her Little Problem. The other is the story of Eve Gardiner, a stuttering half-French girl plucked from her life as a file girl in an English law office and dropped into the spy network in France during World War I. It’s also the story of their two quests—Charlie’s search for her French cousin Rose, missing since 1944, and Eve’s quest for retribution and for peace.
And, it’s the story of Louise de Bettignies, code named Alice Dubois, queen of spies.
Have you heard of her? If you have, you’re doing better than me! Before reading this fascinating novel, I knew nothing about women spies in WWI apart from some vague recollections about Mata Hari. I was surprised when I realised that I was reading about a woman who had truly risked her life providing the allies with information. I mean, I’m not completely ignorant about the world wars. I studied Gallipoli in History and War Poetry in English, not to mention a having a fair few novels set during the wars on my Completed Shelf. But Louise de Bettingnies was a stranger to me. It’s a shame she isn’t better known, as Kate Quinn says of her in the authors note:
The courage, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of the woman christened the queen of spies needs no exaggeration to make for thrilling reading.
Not only was Louise a real person, so too were several other characters, and many of the events in the story are based on historical events. I didn’t realise this while I was reading, so this realisation, at the end, made the book even more enjoyable.
This book is, by turns, exciting, harrowing, poignant, a little romantic, and quite funny. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Charlie, after being refused access to her own bank account because she’s lacking a man, decides to pawn her grandmothers pearls, and Eve surprises her by pretending to be the said grandmother and browbeating the pawnbroker into giving Charlie a decent price. I’m definitely going to be adding Kate Quinn to my list of must-read authors, and I hope you do too!
The Alice Network
by Kate Quinn
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
100 years ago last week at Craiglockhart Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers in Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen introduced himself to Siegfried Sassoon and one of the great literary friendships was born. Wilfred was recovering from shellshock, deeply traumatised by his time on the Western Front in 1917. Siegfried, grieving and angry at the deaths of his friends and men in his unit, had protested against the continued conduct of the First World War. After intervention from Robert Graves, he was sent to Craiglockhart rather than face a court martial. As the aspiring poet Wilfred was well aware, Siegfried was already a moderately famous poet. In the few weeks together they had in Scotland, Siegfried encouraged and mentored Wilfred.
Wilfred was killed on 4 November 1918, exactly a year after he left Craiglockhart and a week before the Armistice, however in the time between meeting Siegfried and his death he produced some of the most famous war poems, including Anthem for Doomed Youth and Strange Meeting. Their shared influence can still be felt today – their works are still taught in school, and Siegfried’s quote “I died in hell; they called it Passchendaele” has been widely quoted in the ongoing commemorations of the Third Battle of Ypres.
We know so much about their friendship as they both wrote about it – Wilfred in excited letters to his mother and Siegfried a couple of decades later in his volume of autobiography Siegfried’s Journey. This documentation has provided excellent source material for modern authors looking to portray the two poets. They are the subject of a two-hander play Not About Heroes which covers Craiglockhart in Act One and their different paths in Act Two. Intimate and moving, this is a powerful play (but having directed it a few years ago I am quite biased).
Perhaps the most well-known depiction of their friendship is in Pat Barker‘s award winning Regeneration Trilogy. However, in Barker’s interpretation of Siegfried’s time at Craiglockhart, his friendship with Wilfred is overshadowed by his connection with his doctor, W. H. R. Rivers. There’s a lot going on in the trilogy – the cultural construct of masculinity cracking under pressure, mental health, sex, pacifism – and Siegfried and Wilfred are only one strand to this. Rivers is perhaps the main character and the marvelous fictional creation that is Billy Prior dominates the last two books.
I’ve mentioned before how Billy is possibly my favourite literary character. He’s the working class kid who becomes an officer; he’s bisexual; he’s somewhere on the continuum of sanity and insanity; he’s a split personality. He’s so many things that in some ways he shouldn’t work but – to me at least – he does. Billy and Rivers tie the trilogy together.
And so a chance meeting 100 years ago is still being interpreted and played out today; the voices of those caught up in conflict still resonating.
Pop! Bang! That’s what happened – literally – when a group of New Zealand children’s authors and illustrators presented inspiring talks to hundreds of Canterbury school children, just ahead of the announcement of the 2017 winners of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
Several of the nominated authors and illustrators toured the country speaking to school children about their work and craft. Hosted in conjunction with WORD Christchurch, they addressed primary and intermediate students who came from across Canterbury to hear them speak at St. Margaret’s College. They talked about what it takes to be a writer and/or illustrator and what keeps them inspired and shared their working processes, all with the aim of sparking readers and the next generation of writers and illustrators. We share some of the highlights here.
Session One: Tania Roxborogh, Leonie Agnew and David Elliot
“Any change for good is powered by fury and passion to make the world a better place” says Tania Roxborogh, and this idea is a driving force behind the story in her book about the Bastion Point occupation for Scholastic’s My New Zealand Story series, told from a child’s point of view.
Through the process of researching and writing this book, Roxborogh was reminded that: “Retelling history is never straightforward” because “people lie, self-edit, and mis-remember” and that “people remember different things.” She added that there is also the problem of bias in New Zealand media – from the right wing as well as the left wing – which she had to take into consideration when researching for this book.
When Roxborogh visited Bastion Point to help her find her point of view for the story, she found herself humbled, prompting her to ask: “What right do I even have to tell this story?” She realised, however, that regardless of who she was, the story of the protesters was a story worth telling.
Roxborogh teaches English and Drama at a Canterbury high school and has written over 50 books.
Snark – Being a true history of the expedition that discovered the Snark and the Jabberwock … and its tragic aftermath.
Elliot’s illustrated book was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, and the Jabberwock and his presentation of museum-like artefacts and the stories he told about them would have had some in the audience wondering if his tale of the mission to discover the snark was true or not.
Elliot says he spent time living in a cottage inside Edinburgh Zoo and you have to wonder if this influenced his work illustrating weird and wonderous creatures.
For The Impossible Boy, Agnew asked: “What if a kid believes in something so much that his faith in it makes it real?” like Peter Pan’s belief in fairies, and on the flipside, “if you were an imaginary friend, what if you discovered you weren’t real?”
Agnew recommended using a little bit of non-fiction to make your fiction more real. In this case, she used the war-torn streets of Beirut in Lebanon as the inspiration for her setting of the story.
Various authors at the event talked about the hard parts of writing, when you feel like quitting or at least taking a break. Writing can take time! Agnew wrote 100 drafts of her book over 6 to 8 years. She says if you’re stuck, consider what Einstein said: You don’t solve a problem by looking at it in the same way, try looking at things from a new angle.
Agnew fits writing into her job as a primary school teacher by getting up at 5:30am to write before the school day starts. What inspired her to become a writer? Agnew “grew up in a house full of books” and her dad was a journalist who writes non-fiction, but really, she says, she “just wanted to do it.”
In the first session with Tania Roxborogh, Leonie Agnew and David Elliot I felt an overall theme of the elusive – of capturing the elusive writing spark, capturing the Snark, and elusive invisible friends. Another theme that came through for me was the theme of imagination: imagine if someone was trying to take your land, imagine wondrous creatures and lands, imagine how an imaginary friend would feel if they discovered they weren’t real. Imagine.
Session Two: Des Hunt, Jenny Cooper and Simon Pollard
Des Hunt has a love of adventure stories, science, New Zealand animals and he combines all of these into his stories. Sunken Forest was inspired by a real life summer camp he went on when he was 15 at Lake Waikaremoana, a trip that was memorable partly for sparking his interest in geology. The lake was formed during an earthquake landslide that drowned the forest. Standing tree trunks eerily remain there underwater today. Also trapped there are eels which can’t make their way back to sea to migrate to the Pacific islands to lay eggs. Unable to leave, they grow exponentially large.
In Sunken Forest, one such eel befriends Matt, who is sent to boot camp after his father, a boy racer, is sentenced to prison. At camp, Matt has to deal with bullies and getting the blame for things he didn’t do.
In his talk, Des Hunt totally engaged his audience from beginning to end, by which time he had them on the edge of their seats. He cleverly demonstrated the idea of building tension in a story by blowing up a balloon… about to burst at any moment. How do you really build tension in a story? He says: Add conflict and injustice, a disaster and… Pop!… an explosive climax.
While many of those who spoke at the event started writing or drawing as early as their primary school years, surprisingly Des only published his first fiction book when he was about 50 years old but has since written heaps of books. His passion for writing is now so strong that he can’t imagine doing anything else and he hopes to be an author until he dies. This is good news for my young son who was so inspired by Des Hunt’s presentation he immediately went and read Sunken Forest, despite never having independently read a chapter book without pictures in it before. Des certainly inspired him reader to take his reading engagement to a higher level.
It was fantastic to see instant booktalking success in action! Des tours schools doing writing workshops so see if your school can be added to his schedule.
She especially does a lot of research for illustrating the war stories, hiring models and WWI artefacts and taking hundreds of photos to draw from so she could get the details correct. The war stories she works on are “hard to illustrate because they are so sad” but equally she says, they are “really satisfying.” She added: “Sometimes the hardest and most challenging things you work on were the most rewarding.”
This was a sentiment shared by several of the speakers. Getting to a finished product takes times and many drafts! She tries 6 – 10 layouts before she has a rough drawing and after that, a finished painting may take up to 6 hours.
Pollard is a spider expert, lecturing as an adjunct professor at the University of Canterbury and he has been working with spiders for 30 to 40 years. He is interested in telling stories about what spiders get up to and recently worked with WETA Workshop on the impressive display of oversized bugs for the Bug Lab show at Te Papa Museum.
Pollard is an engaging speaker and really brings bugs to life. He told stories (complete with eek-inducing pictures) about the jewel wasp that immobilises and enslaves a cockroach so it can use it as a living nursery, laying its eggs in it to hatch. Ingenious, but gross. We also heard about the clever Japanese honey bees that kill their enemy, the Japanese hornet, by gathering together in a ball around one and quivering – the heat of their buzzing wings stops the wasp from secreting their signal for more wasps to attack them.
Then there’s the insect that looks like a spider, but isn’t, just to scare off predators. After learning all these fun facts, we were left marvelling at the magic of the natural world.
Primary and intermediate students from all over Christchurch lined up to ask lots of questions of the authors and illustrators after they spoke. Here are their inquisitive questions, and answers aimed at inspiring young readers, writers and artists.
What were some of your favourite books (growing up and now) and what writers would you recommend?
An integral part of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults is the HELL Reading Challenge, now in its fourth year. It has been hugely successful in getting kids reading and enjoying the pleasure of stories (and pizza). Kids can pick up their reading challenge cards at Christchurch City Libraries (until December 2017).
I find myself drawn to diaries and letters that record a soldier’s experiences of World War I. They are often intelligent, interesting and informative; and diary entries in particular can paint a vivid picture of what these men had to endure. It is never far from my mind that more often than not they chose to go to the other side of the world to stand side by side with strangers to defend the Empire and ‘see some action’. But I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of experience Māori had compared to Pākehā. They were just as eager to travel to the other side of the world and fight for Empire and country as their Pākehā counterparts.
But the Māori contingent were up against it from the beginning. Initially the Government wouldn’t allow them to fight at the front line due to the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi preventing them from participating in a European War. Concession was instead made for Māori to provide garrison, engineering and construction duties to support the war effort. However, it wasn’t long before they became the reinforcements as the allies suffered heavy losses.
This is how I found The Last Maopo by Tania Te Rangingangana Simpson. This is the very moving story of Wiremu Maopo and Phoebe Prentice – separated by war and the misguided intentions of her parents; they were destined to live out their lives apart. They were having a secret love affair while living at Taumutu, prior to Wiremu leaving for war, and he sadly would never know that he had fathered a little girl with Phoebe.
Phoebe’s parents effectively stole her daughter Marjorie Joyce from her and had her adopted out to a loving family. It would be many years before Phoebe was reunited with her daughter as she never stopped looking for her. The tragedy is that Wiremu never knew he was a father and Phoebe never searched for him either as she was told that he died in the war. Wiremu wrote letters to Phoebe but never heard from her as they were destroyed to sever the connection she had with him, so he assumed that she had lost interest. She married 2 other men in her lifetime but maintained that Wiremu was her one true love.
The Last Maopo is their story – brief as it was. It is the result of 20 years of research by Tania Te Rangingangana Simpson. She pieces together peoples recollections, historical facts and Wiremu’s letters home to long time friend Virgie Fincham, from the more than 3 years he spent on active service. Their friendship and correspondence continued after the war when Wiremu returned to New Zealand to recover from a bad bout of pneumonia. Over the years his once large family had diminished until only Wiremu and his sister remained. Sadly she also died far too early which left him, as far as Wiremu knew, the last of his family line.
This makes it all the more fortuitous that events aligned to once again bring the Maopo family line into being. What an incredible gift to have the letters of our ancestors bring your family’s heritage to life. This is a very poignant book to take on but well worth your time. In addition to the personal story it is wonderful to see the high esteem the Māori Pioneer Battalion were held in for their bravery, work ethic and good natured camaraderie. If you are like me and enjoy reading historical diaries and letters, why don’t you try these:
In this world of alternative truths, acts of terrorism, online dating and climate change, sometimes what one really needs is a well-mannered book. In well-mannered books there is no gratuitous swearing, sex is private, and war (a sometimes necessary evil?) is viewed from a big picture perspective. These are books in which Mr Please and Mr Thank-you have not yet left the building.
And if you are thinking the descending scale “Boring”, you could not be more wrong. Take A Gentleman in Moscow as an exquisite example of a well-mannered read. Count Rostov (an unrepentant aristocrat) is placed under house arrest for life in 1922 in The Metropol Hotel opposite the Kremlin. The book is 462 pages long and almost all of the action takes place in that grand old hotel. Count Rostov is an urbane, witty, positively likeable character – what is more, the book is peopled by a fascinating array of eccentrics.
As time passes, the world outside of the hotel changes and in a conversation with his lover Anushka, Count Rostov gives his view on the conveniences of modern life such as remote garage door openers:
“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute…….To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest conveniences Anushka – and at one time I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”
Another contemporary author who writes in a very well-mannered way is Francois Lelord. In his novel Hector and the Search for Happiness, a young French psychiatrist (Hector) surely knows about love, sex, anxiety and behaviour problems. Indeed, this novel touches on all manner of problematic topics like prostitution and drug dealing, but in a very polite way.
You will be on a spectrum with your opinion of these books: from charming, to naïve, to patronising and worse. But I myself was charmed. So much so, I was delighted to hear that a film has been made of the first book. Imagine then my dismay when I learned that the film had turned its back on its French origins, been cast with a British psychiatrist, and set in the USA. How rude, not at all well-mannered. This would not have happened had Hector and Count Rostov met and formed a political party and taken over the world!
In the end Hector comes up with 23 “Life Lessons on Happiness” from all his travels. It seems appropriate to end with lesson no.5
He was a carpenter, a sportsman – a boxer – went to Christchurch Normal School (local boy), his photos show a nice face, and he wasn’t married. Just an ordinary kiwi bloke, maybe. But he did extraordinary things.
Henry Nicholas enlisted in February 1916 with the 1st Canterbury Battalion, and landed in France in September 1916. With his Regiment was involved in fighting at The Somme, Messines and Polderhoek, (Belgium).
It was from the action at Polderhoek on 3 December 1917 that he was awarded the Victoria Cross for “conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty… exceptional valour and coolness”. He destroyed an enemy strongpoint that was inflicting heavy casualties and overpowered a sixteen-man enemy garrison, capturing four wounded prisoners and an enemy machine-gun.
While on leave in England in mid-1918 he was invested by the King, the first solder in his regiment to be awarded the V.C., and he returned to France in September 1918, promoted to sergeant.
The Regiment had the duty of holding the town of Beaudignies, near Le Quesnoy. A skirmish on 23rd October with a German patrol cost Nicholas his life, and earned him the Military Medal.
6.30am: Service begins centred around the Memorial Cenotaph
7.15am: Service concludes with Mayor Lianne Dalziel laying a wreath on behalf of the citizens of Christchurch.
Organised by the Canterbury Branch of the Malayan Veterans Association in conjunction with the Christchurch Branch of the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association (RSA), and the Christchurch City Council.
There will be a volley of shots fired and a fly-over by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The New Zealand Army Band will be in attendance and a bugler will play The Last Post.
The service runs for about 30–45mins and will be projected on two large screens.
The Citizens’ Service is organised by Christchurch City Council in conjunction with Christchurch Cathedral and the RSA. An address will be given by Air Commodore Andrew Woods, RNZAF and representatives of the NZ Defence Force, Consular Corps and various Christchurch youth groups will be attending.
In 2015, the Canterbury Province Field in Cranmer Square contained 632 crosses commemorating the men and women of Christchurch who died in 1915. A further 825 crosses were added in 2016 and the field will gain more crosses again this year.
Exhibitions, displays and events
Heathcote WWI Soldiers Remembered – 31 March to 30 April at Linwood Library at Eastgate Mall. The soldiers from Heathcote Valley who died in WWI are individually remembered in an exhibition at Linwood Library.
Eastside Gallery: Anzac Exhibition 2017 Opening Wednesday 19 April – Friday 28 April. A multi-media participatory experience on the theme, “We honour, we remember, we reflect”. Photographs, artworks, installations, memorabilia, talks, readings, poetry and prose, printed and audiovisual material. With a poetry evening on Friday 28 April.
On 25 April we will stop to remember those who served in the conflicts New Zealand has participated in, from the world wars to Iraq and Afghanistan, via Korea, Vietnam and others, and not forgetting New Zealand’s 19th century wars and the Boer War.
As the First World War disappears from living memory, we are fortunate to have access to historic newspapers either on microfilm at Central Library Manchester or at Papers Past. They can show us how Anzac Day has been commemorated and represented over the past century. An editorial from The Press on 25 April 1917 explains that the “magic word ‘Anzac’… tells us how Australians and New Zealanders fought and died shoulder to shoulder in the cause of freedom” and that “time has not yet mellowed the memory of that day.”
The editorial also makes a passing reference to some of the Indian troops who served during the Gallipoli campaign. Around 16,000 individuals from the Indian Army served during the campaign and their neglected story is well told in Die in battle, do not despair: the Indians on Gallipoli, 1915 by Peter Stanley.
Ever growing access to different sources and new publications means that we can uncover and share more stories than ever about the First World War and other conflicts New Zealand has been involved in.
The biennial Pikihuia awards have returned for 2017 bringing with them the chance for fame and cash prizes. Selected winners and finalists will be published in Huia Short Stories 12.
Six categories including:
Best short story written in English
Best short story written in te reo Māori
Best short Film Script
Best Novel Extract
Best short story by a school student in English
Best short story by a school student in te reo Māori
With $2000 up for grabs for the winners of the first four categories and winners of the school student categories are up to win a cash prize of $500 and $250 worth of HUIA books for their school be sure to get your entries in.
Enter online at Huia or The Māori Literature Trust, entries close 5pm Tuesday 18th April and winners are announced at the awards ceremony in Wellington this September.
Check out some of the books in our collections from past winners:
Up to 10 scholarships are on offer at a value of between $1000 and $3000 and are open to all Māori students, in any field, from any iwi. Preference is given to applicants who are descendants of Māori WW1 veterans. Applications close 1st of May 2017.
The Sir Āpirana Ngata Memorial Scholarship, created by the Māori Soldiers Trust to support higher education amongst Māori, is administered by Te Tumu Paeroa. Funding for the scholarship comes from Hereheretau Station, an investment of the Māori Soldiers Trust Fund set up at the urging of Sir Āpirana Ngata, who was once a recipient of a scholarship himself.