Mahuika, J. R. (2015). Patricia Grace’s Tu: Reading the novel of indigenous insight (Thesis, Master of Arts (MA)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/10165
University of Waikato
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Tu is the sixth novel of Māori author Patricia Grace, and it’s quite different to her other novels I’ve read, which have all been firmly grounded in New Zealand. It’s the story of three brothers who go away to war, and of a girl who matters to all of them.
Most of the novel is narrated by Tu, responding in his later years to the questions of his nephews Rimini and Benedict. The novel is bookended by his letters to them, with his war diary set in Italy in between, along with the back story of his brother Pita in New Zealand.
Tu is much younger than his brothers Pita and Rangi, and he bears the burden of being the chosen one. When their father returned from WW1 he was a damaged man, and his violence blighted their youth. Pita stayed home from school to protect his mother, making his employment prospects even more difficult in a society where discrimination against the Māori was the norm. Quiet, thoughtful and an intensely private man, Pita is nothing like his knockabout brother Rangi, but both of them are determined that Tu will win a native scholarship, get an education and become the hope of the family. This sense of family responsibility amongst the Māori is a motif which recurs after their father dies and the family moves to Wellington: the boys share their earnings to augment their mother’s war widows pension, a pension which was inexplicably half the amount paid to Pakeha women.
The coming of war brings issues of identity to the fore. For many young men, enlistment meets a desire for independence, travel, and a sense of purpose. But the general question of whether New Zealanders should fight for a British cause far from home becomes more personal for the Māori. Should they fight for the people who colonised their country and systematically disadvantaged them thereafter? Would the formation of the Māori Battalion bring them some long overdue respect? These existential questions don’t trouble Rangi much: he joins up…
Between the chapters of Tu’s war narrative, is the third person narrative of Pita, struggling to come to terms with masculinity. He has a paternalistic view of women, is protective of his sisters, and judgemental about women who wear makeup. (This paternalism is irritating to a 21st century feminist, but it was authentic in that period). But Pita is attracted to Jess, a Pakeha who works in the local cake shop, and she is attracted to him. The boys in this family, however, expect to live at home until they marry and when they do so it will be with the approval of their family. He knows Jess is not for him. He is meant to marry Ani Rose, and every time he is with Jess it feels like a betrayal, not only of Ani Rose but also of his family and his culture. He resolves his ambivalence by caving in to the pressure to enlist, because he feels the unspoken criticism that a young man like him should not be doing work that could be done by old men and women, he should be a warrior.
There were other reasons he had for joining up. There was something in him, some wrong thing that hurt people or frightened them – something stuck in his works, pulling down inside him like a stiffened claw, which he needed to take to war. There was the mess of himself and what it did to dreams.
He needed to escape, and there was a war to escape to (p.37-8)
Although Jess is central to the narrative, she is a shadowy figure. Pita muses on her attractive appearance, and he is uneasy about her pert and independent-minded behaviour. He can’t reconcile Jess’s nonchalance about her family’s disapproval with his own attitudes: his Catholic moral code, his quiet pride in his Māori identity and his desire to follow traditional ways. But the characterisation of Jess herself is muted. Her perspective can only be inferred through brief conversations with Pita.
Indeed, the characterisation of all the women is mere backdrop. Ma is devout, devoted and stoic. The two sisters are barely mentioned except as go-betweens for Jess, and the only time Ani Rose asserts herself is to say that she wants to marry Pita before he embarks for war rather than when he gets back. Compared to the dynamic women of Potiki (1986), Cousins (1992), and Baby No-eyes (1998), these women are insignificant. Perhaps it is the author’s way of exploring cultural disruption by showing how women were relegated to insignificance during war. Ma’s role is to maintain heritage links. The girls do war work in factories. But they don’t have anything much to say.
Tu’s narrative of his wartime experiences in Italy will mean more to people who have been there, especially for Australians more used to a flat landscape. In 2015 The Spouse and I stayed in a villa in Tuscany, in the little village of Monterchi. All around us were hilltop vantage points that had been used as fortresses since time out of mind. In WW2 there was ferocious fighting all through such treacherous mountainous terrain as the allies made their way north from Sicily and the Southern mainland, and I am proud to have known my neighbour who fought with the partisans against the Nazis as a 15-year-old. But when you have seen the steep precipices and winding valleys yet you know that the Allies succeeded, it is still hard to imagine how they managed to dislodge the Germans. Patricia Grace has used the infamous assault on Monte Cassino as the setting for pitched battles and there is an authenticity about this narrative that obviously derives from the sources she acknowledges at the back of the book. But I did not enjoy reading these scenes. (I was interested to see at Goodreads that some found these more engaging than the scenes in New Zealand, it just shows you how different reader responses can be, eh?)
The secret that lies behind Tu’s post-war life divorced from his family is all the more shocking for its tragic irony. The reader has been focussed on Jess, and how she comes to matter to all three of these brothers so the revelation is wholly unexpected. It’s remarkable also how well Grace manages to convey a male voice transitioning from hope, excitement and pride to bitterness, shame and despair. She really is a brilliant author.
BTW that poignant cover photo is authentic: it’s of John Taua, the only soldier in the Māori Battalion to have been awarded the United States Silver Star for bravery.
Update: Thanks to TracyFarr who tweets as hissingswan , I have learned that by coincidence, I published this novel which features some use of the Māori language, during Maori Language Week, marked every year since 1975:
This is a time for all New Zealanders to celebrate te reo Māori (the Māori language) and to use more Māori phrases in everyday life. In 2016 Māori Language Week runs from 4-10 July, the theme is ākina to reo – behind you all the way, which is about using te reo Māori to support people, to inspire and to cheer on.
You can find out more about it, as I did, at Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission) and at the NZ History website. And Irā! you can check out the phrases of the week here.
Author: Patricia Grace
Publisher: Penguin, 2004
Source: Personal library, found in an Op Shop.
Available from Fishpond:Tu
Posted in 2016 Indigenous Literature Week, Female authors, FICTION - NEW ZEALAND, GRACE Patricia, Indigenous authors, Maori, New Zealand, New Zealand (settings), NZ 2004, Ockham New Zealand Literary Awards, Penguin (NZ), Read in 2016, REVIEWS | Tags: #BookReview, 2016 Indigenous Literature Week, Book cover design, Maori authors, New Zealand Literature, Patricia Grace, Tu