This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.
Witi Ihimaera’s Whale Rider is a beautiful gem of a story, highlighting and celebrating Maori culture and society.
Eight-year-old Kahu is a girl growing up in a male-dominated world. Her tribe claims to go all the way back to the whale rider Kahutia Te Rangi and the current chief is her ageing grandfather Koro. It’s a sore point with him that his first grandchild is not only a girl, but also named after the legendary ancestor.
In a society, in which the tribal ways still dictate social and cultural behaviour, the little girl has to prove her worth as her grandfather desperately seeks a successor.
Whale Rider is written from the perspective of Kahu’s uncle Rawiri, who – like the author – knows the Maori culture. Trying to gain her grandfather’s love, Kahu throws herself into her studies of the Maori language and local legends. And with a little curiosity and the secret help of her relatives, Kahu learns the skills usually reserved for boys. When whales start to wash up on the beach of the small Maori community, it is time for the real heir of Kahutia to take their rightful place in the tribe.
It is a beautiful story, weaving together the past and present, highlighting the generational shift in dynamics while trying to hang on to the old ways and legends. The relationship between Kahu and her grandfather is both beautiful and incredibly sad. All Kahu wants is for her grandfather to love her. She’s a good, well-behaved girl, who does not understand why she is being punished with neglect; while he is an old man who only knew one way of running the tribe, and what positions girls in his family are supposed to take and struggles with breaking from tradition.
The book does a wonderful job of introducing Maori culture and includes many Maori names and words. There’s no westernized view of tribal life or belittling of the traditional ways. It showcases the importance of the ancestral legends and the how their culture defines their everyday life. But at the heart, it is a touching story about a little girl and her granddad who live in Aotearoa – the Land of the Long White Cloud – and who have to work at finding mutual respect in a world in which cultural limitations are changing.
Whale Rider was the first novel by a Maori author to be published, and to me, this is a defining piece of Kiwi Literature. If you are interested in New Zealand at all, read this book first and foremost!
My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥
Title: Whale Rider
Author: Witi Ihimaera
Publisher: HMH Books
Release Date: May 1, 2003 (originally published in 1987)