Tales of early days whet the appetite

Historic Treasures of the South
By John Hall-Jones (Craig Printing, RRP $40)

Don't you just love books that leave you feeling not just more interested, but more interesting?

Not just well-armed with stories about the south, but better connected to it?

Dr Hall-Jones is unassailably one of the south's great historians and here is a book in which artefacts, often still in reach of the public, serve as touchstones for stories worth telling and remembering in their own right.

We're spoilt for choice but consider the story of James Caddell, the 16-year-old sealer who survived a massacre to become a tattooed chief among his captors. Caddell took a Maori youth nicknamed Jacky Snapper to Sydney and back. It is now known that Jacky was the future great chief Tuhawaiki, possessor of a different nickname, Bloody Jack. This was the leader who not only inflicted indignities on would-be invader Te Rauparaha, but was also key to the good relations that developed between Maori and Europeans in the south. Knowing this much might make your gaze linger, longer than it might, on the sight of his greenstone mere.

Yet this story occupies just eight paragraphs. Our guide has a great deal of ground to cover and he does so briskly with tales of early Maori and Europeans, navigators, sealers and whalers, researched from first-hand accounts from key historical figures, and more than 200 illustrations.

But if, even so, you turn the final page with more curiosities ignited than sated, neither the reader nor the author is likely to be displeased. After all, good histories do tend to be habit-forming.

John Hall-Jones has written 31 of them. Twice the winner of the J M Sherrard Award for regional histories, he was also a finalist in the Sir James Wattie Book Awards for his Goldfields of the South, and the Montana Book Awards for Fjords of Fiordland. He has been awarded the OBE for his histories and was made an honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Otago.

As befits the great-grandson of the intrepid pioneer surveyor John Turnbull Thomson, his perspective is not that of a dustily deskbound observer. An ardent outdoorsman himself, he has frequently played a pro-active role in exploring and uncovering the treasures of which he writes.

If anything, Dr Hall-Jones is at risk of being subsumed by the subject of his latest book, to the extent of being regarded as something of a historical treasure himself.