Little-known historical hero comes to life in novel

Little-known Dr Dieffenbach comes to light

Last updated 12:00 14/08/2014
Novel std
PAGES OF HISTORY: Author Thom Conroy with his new historical novel The Naturalist, which is based on Dr Ernst Dieffenbach.

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A new novel by Palmerston North author Dr Thom Conroy, set to be launched tomorrow, has seen a little-known historical figure rescued from the margins.

Conroy, a Massey University creative writing senior lecturer, moved to New Zealand nine years ago from the United States and he has been working on his novel, The Naturalist, for the past six years. He has done extensive research into the novel's central character, Dr Ernst Dieffenbach.

Conroy describes the man, who has taken up much of his attention during the writing process, as "a liberal-minded, free-spirited 19th century German physican, geologist and naturalist".

While doing research on natural history for another project, Conroy stumbled upon Dieffenbach and was fascinated.

"He wasn't actually at the centre of my early drafts but came to the front later on. He was really quite progressive, fluent in Maori and a man who considered all races to be equal."

And so the historical novel was born, based on the interesting and sometimes controversial life of Dieffenbach, who came to New Zealand on the 1839 expedition of the Tory and stayed for 18 months.

"I was interested in his ideas of colonisation, which clashed with orthodox views at the time. There were big gaps in the historical records of him, so as a novelist that gave me an opportunity to fill them." Such as the tale of Dieffenbach ascending Mt Taranaki, the first European to have done so.

"I have combined the historical timeline with an imaginary timeline. Letting the historical facts determine the early draft and then the imagination crept in more and I began to take liberties. But always with a serious loyalty to the facts."

Conroy's short fiction has been published in several journals in the US and New Zealand and he said the progression from short fiction to writing a novel had seen him pace the story differently.

"This novel is a leisurely kind of story, measured. Dieffenbach is stable and reliable, an easy kind of character to stay with throughout the novel."

The Naturalist is being launched at the Palmerston North City Library tomorrow at 7pm, with a live Celtic band, readings and a book signing.

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- Manawatu Standard

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