A poignant, funny and timeless tale, Savarna Yang
The Whale Rider
First pub. 1987
‘By Māori custom, leadership was hereditary and normally the mantle of mana fell from eldest son to eldest son. Except that in this case, there was an eldest daughter.’
From the day she was born, Kahu has been scorned by her grandfather, Koro, for being a girl. Koro needs a boy, someone who’s ‘more appropriate to teach the traditions of the village to.’
On the other hand, Kahu adores her grandfather, and she will do anything to prove herself to him. But this is going be a hard task. No matter how well she shows Koro that she is worthy of being his successor, he cannot let go of tradition. Will Koro realise too late what Kahu means to him?
The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera is an amazing and moving story about courage and tradition and perseverance. I was in awe of the descriptive use of language – it almost felt like poetry. Te Reo is also beautifully woven throughout the novel, giving a genuine feel to the dialogue and narrative:
‘The mountains were like the poutama, the stairway to heaven, and the lush green rainforest was a rippling kakahu of many colours. The sky was iridescent paua, swirling with the kowhaiwhai patterns of wind and clouds; sometimes it reflected the prisms of rainbow or southern aurora. The sea was an ever-changing pounamu, shimmering and seamless to the sky.’
Some words I recognised, but there were a lot I didn’t know as well. Luckily, I discovered the glossary at the back before too long! This made it a fun learning experience, plus a great read.
The characters were very unique – both in the story itself and compared to other books. By the time I reached the end, I felt like I knew each of them individually. One character in particular stuck out for me, though: Nanny Flowers.
As well as being Kahu’s grandmother (and Koro’s wife) she’s also Kahu’s biggest supporter and will stick up for her no matter what. Even if this involves leaving Koro stranded out in the ocean with no petrol in his boat’s tank, or threatening to move out with her old boyfriend, Nanny Flowers has got Kahu’s back. She’s feisty and funny and my favourite character hands down.
And while this book is incredibly poignant, there are still little scenes that will make you laugh! Nanny Flowers is usually the star in these.
As it’s narrated by a grownup, (Uncle Rawiri) but is about a young girl (Kahu) I think any reader could enjoy The Whale Rider, adults and children alike. Though younger children may find some parts hard to understand, anyone 9+ should definitely read it. It discusses themes of sexism, but it’s sexism versus tradition and the hard questions surrounding this.
The book is divided into sections by seasons, with an epilogue and a prologue. The prologue begins very descriptively but then there’s a change of tone when Uncle Rawiri takes over the telling of the book. This helped define the different sections and voices.
Writing often seems to lack authenticity – people write to a fit a genre or a theme or a current fad. But The Whale Rider is truly a ‘timeless story’ and even though it was written more than 30 years ago, it is still current to modern day readers.
- Savarna is 13 and lives near Dunedin.