Oct 2, 2013

The Whale Rider

by Witi Ihimaera

I recall when I first saw the film made from this book, several years ago, and how moving it was. It's the story of a Maori community on Whangara, set in modern times. Reading it, there is a distinct familiarity to The Bone People (the local language and customs) and the role of a young man being friend and protector to a little girl reminded me a lot of the books with Fynn and Anna. That's one of the main differences between film and movie; that in the book the story is told from the viewpoint of Kahu's young uncle, even though to me she still seemed to be the main character.

Kahu loves her grandfather and is anxious for his attention and approval but he dismisses her entirely for being "a mere girl." He is looking for a boy child to be born into the family line and become the next leader. Kahu is shunned from the gatherings where Maori culture and ancient songs are taught to the young boys, but she sneaks near and listens anyways. She absorbs the old ways like no one else, but it goes practically unnoticed. When a group of whales becomes stranded on the beach nearby, the event feels catastrophic to the islanders, who see the whale as an important figure in their cultural heritage. They feel it is a sign of  impending doom and work frantically to return the whales to the water, but all their efforts seem to be in vain. Kahu steps forward against the voices of the men, and proves herself attuned to nature and the power of the Maori ancestors.

I liked this story well enough, although some parts were a bit of a stretch of the imagination (namely, the segments that showed things from the whales' point of view, and some of the things that happened when Kahu connected with the whales). But the great frustration for me was the frequent inclusion of Maori words in the narrative. There were so many words and phrases, it made my reading very choppy and I often misunderstood or just guessed at the meaning of entire conversations and fragments of paragraphs. I had the great misfortune to read an edition that has no glossary whatsoever. It is a must in this situation! I would not have minded at all to constantly flip to the back to find the translation of things; I actually enjoy the inclusion of foreign words in narratives about a different culture. But in this case I felt like I had to constantly read adjacent to a Maori/English dictionary online, and that was very annoying.

It's the whole reason I didn't enjoy this book. I have no desire to read it ever again, without a glossary included. Then I might be able to immerse myself into it more, and even like it.

Rating: 2/5 ......... 122 pages, 1987

more opinions:
the Book Coop
forest of paper
Fifty Books Project
Little Bonobo's Book Cafe
a strong belief in wicker


Jenny @ Reading the End said...

What a shame the Maori words kept taking you out of the story. Like you, I saw the film and found it very moving -- that young actress was superb. I wonder if other editions of the book do include a glossary, or if they all just leave you to guess.

Jeane said...

I think mine was an early edition and most others do include a glossary. Most other reviews I read online mentioned use of a glossary so I just lucked out!

Susan said...

Did you end up preferring the book or the movie? I haven't seen either, which is surprising since I love whales and saw the whale exhibit at our natural history museum two years ago, which featured Maori culture with the whales. I think it's the boys own culture that is bothering me.

I will look for an edition with a glossary though, thanks for the tip!

Jeane said...

Susan- I like the movie better, by far. I think my copy was an anomaly- most current editions probably have a glossary.