Review: The Settler’s Plot

REVIEW: Alex Calder, The Settler’s Plot: How Stories Take Place In New Zealand,  Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2011, 299 pp., ISBN 978 1 86940 488 8. 

Julian Kuzma[1]

Books on the roots of New Zealand literature and literary culture appear relatively far and few between. Alex Calder’s ‘study of the relationship between literature, place and the history of Pākehā settlement in New Zealand’ comes then as a welcome addition.

Calder writes in a refreshingly straightforward and personable manner, free from the alienating terminology and continental theories of post-modern scholars (who have often influenced writing on New Zealand literature and literary culture, but whose approaches are often simply not applicable to the New Zealand historical and social context, landscape or literature).  His style may be accessible but the ideas Calder conveys on authorial perception of place and representation of that place in literature are far from simple. The Settler’s Plot is neither introductory study nor textbook, and readers with some prior knowledge of the texts and authors discussed will gain the most from this book.

A number of landmark New Zealand texts are examined from fresh angles at the same time as which prevalent discourses are challenged. Calder has no pretensions to represent the entire body of New Zealand literature, rather to ‘read a relatively small number of classic New Zealand texts closely and well.’ Therefore, instead of a general discussion of literature and place in New Zealand, the book is a series of free-standing essays about place, loosely grouped in topical bodies in roughly chronological order. These are ‘Belonging’ (the question of Pākehā turangawawae), ‘Landing’ (cross cultural encounters in the nineteenth century), ‘Settlement’ (appropriating land, transforming the landscape, life in the suburbs) and ‘Looming’ (different kinds of New Zealanders and the awareness of a distant place in the world).

Certain works and authors merit Calder’s attention for entire sections and these often contain the book’s most interesting parts. Rather than random selections, Calder’s choices of text, as well as his additional references to other authors, sources and literature, show that his understanding of his theme is comprehensive – his arguments are grounded, convincing and applicable far beyond his subject texts. Furthermore, Calder writes with an insightful enthusiasm for his subjects that is infectious.

The choices of text contain both the expected and the surprising. It is on works that have been well-trodden by previous literary critics that Calder displays his ability to engage afresh with his subjects. Katherine Mansfield (whose works have provided literary scholars with what approaches an international publishing industry) tempts jaded palates for a fresh taste of suburban Karori, served alongside accounts of Frank Sargeson’s Takapuna and Maurice Gee’s ‘Loomis’. Even Alan Mulgan’s Man Alone – that most dismal of New Zealand classics – is completely revived through a discussion of the influence of the Western genre.

In Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914 (2006), Stafford and Williams read eight authors and used that as the basis of some assumptions on an entire era of literature, disappointingly failing to come to terms with the importance, necessary awkwardness and contradictions of that most interesting period of emergent literary nationhood. In The Settler’s Plot Calder crosses over similar early authorial territory, but comes to some new conclusions.

His first and most important realisation is that New Zealand environment and literature, from any era, are inseparable. It’s an obvious point perhaps, but one that literary analysts have often skirted around. Calder’s second important point is that non-fiction writing is as relevant a form of literature as poetry, fiction and drama: Failure to recognise this has been ‘the main reason why our nineteenth century literature has sometimes seemed so impoverished.’ To this end Calder includes a chapter on Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s Tutira; a transitional record of breaking in the land both as an improvement and as a desecration – a contradiction that lies at the heart of understanding early New Zealand culture and literature. Other non-fiction works on the theme of landscape discussed include Blanche Baughan’s 1900s tourist travelogues, alongside an appraisal of a tourism documentary hosted by Helen Clark. This leads to Calder’s third realisation – that individual authors will find individual meanings in alien or familiar landscapes. Their interpretations are not expected to be coherent or cohesive and are often even self-contradictory. This strange diversity is what makes up the rich history of New Zealand’s Pākehā settlement and its literature.

The Settler’s Plot might be described as a gallery of landscape paintings and portraits, displayed in a seemingly haphazard manner ranging from historic curios to contemporary works and of various sizes and grandeur. Browsing among the works viewers will find much to interest, suggestive connections and insights, ideas that appeal and things to take away, inviting return visits.

[1] Julian is a co-editor and book reviewer for ENNZ.