The Literature Hub
Reviewed by Ashleigh
Author: Deborah Challinor
Publisher & Pages: HarperCollins, 350 pages
Blurb: When armed conflict drives a wedge between Maori and Pakeha, not everyone can choose sides easily. For Isla McKinnon, the choices are bitter. Taken in by local Maori when her parents are brutally murdered, she has grown to womanhood and taken a Maori husband. In a thrilling tale of love and loss from the land wars – when simmering tensions between Maori and the encroaching Pakeha settlements exploded into bloody warfare – love and trust are put cruelly to the test. Separated from her husband and her family and restored to Auckland society, Isla must learn to survive in both worlds. Inevitably, she must decide between them, and lose part of her heart forever.
Highlight: Isla is a fantastic character.
Caution: This book deals with some hard topics such as racial prejudice.
Highlight: There is a strong message of love and loss, and how we are all connected by that.
Caution: The McKinnon children start out as a little annoying because of their naivety. If you can get past that then ignore this Caution.
Review: Deborah Challinor is a best-selling author who writes novels set in New Zealand past, and this particular book is set in the 1860's. It discusses Maori traditions, adoption, prejudice by both Maori and Pakehā, loss, and the Maori/European land wars.
Normally, I can't stand books about war. They bore me because of all the technical jargon and the endless hours of strategic planning. This book, however, did not bore me.
The book is told from the perspective of a young Scottish girl named Isla (Eye-La) McKinnon. We start off with her getting her first period. I especially love the way Challinor deals with this. It is such a mature topic, but it is dealt with in such a naive voice. Isla thinks she is dying.
In the first chapter, we definitely get a feel for the dynamics of a Scottish family. Isla is very mature for her age, and her parents seem to adore her. Then, while she and her younger siblings are out fetching the family cow Rosie from where she wandered off, her parents are brutally murdered. Naturally, Isla and her siblings assume the Maori have killed them, and when they see a group of Maori men coming for the house, they hide in the basement under the kitchen, terrified. The men, however, find Isla's parents already dead when they arrive, and they bury them in the back garden. One of them then finds Isla and her siblings cowering in the basement. The men bring them back to their village, where the children are adopted by the leader, Wira, and his wife, Mere. Isla and her siblings (Niel, Jamie and Jean) become whangai children.
Eventually, Isla and her siblings discover that the Maori culture is not so different from their own Scottish culture. Isla marries a Maori man by the name of Tai. They have a 'bairn', a baby, who dies shortly after birth. This is one of the ways Challinor deals with loss in her book. The next is when Isla believes her husband to be dead, after he is shot during the land wars.
Challinor also deals with prejudice in her novel. At first, Isla and her siblings think the Maori are brutal, evil people, but their perception quickly changes when they settle in at the Ngati Pono village. They are no longer scared of Maori, but fight for them in the land wars against the British. Their perception of the British also changes when they learn it was a British man who killed their parents.
The book doesn't only deal with the children's prejudices, but the prejudices of everyone around them. When Isla is in labour, the Maori doctor refuses to tend to her because she is white. When Isla is captured by the British during the war, she is taken to Auckland, where everyone assumes she was forced to marry Tai and was raped by him, all because he is Maori. At the end of her stay in Auckland, she has successfully managed to change the way a few people perceive the Maori.
Deborah Challinor is a Kiwi writer and historian, born in Huntly. She attended Waikato University, where she completed a PhD in New Zealand Military History. All of her historical novels set and written in New Zealand have reached the New Zealand fiction Bestseller list, six of them reaching number one.
Behind the book:
“There are a good handful of books around about the ‘strategy and weapons’ side of the New Zealand Wars, but not much about the impact on those who fought in them, Maori or European. Well, not enough, anyway. I wanted to write from the Maori perspective, but didn’t feel I could with any real authority, because I’m not Maori. So I wrote through the eyes of Isla, my Scottish protagonist, which seemed to me to be the best compromise I could come up with.”
I think Ms. Challinor does this very well. She explores how both Maori and Pakeha can be on the fence when trying to relate to something. At the beginning of the book, Isla's younger brother Niel thinks they should go to New Plymouth, where they can be with other pakehā. At the end, Isla and her siblings feel very much Maori, despite other people's prejudice. They have experienced both worlds, and call themselves Maori, as well as Scottish.
I think Isle of Tears is a magnificent book. It deals with all aspects of hardship and war, without being boring or hard to read. I enjoyed this much more than Cousins, but I think that is because I could relate to it more, and there is no switching between point-of-views and voice. The best thing about this book is that anyone can relate to it, as well as being able to understand the love and loss that connects us all, no matter what culture we may be.
Star Rating: 5 Stars
Available in: Kindle, Paperback