Vintage reads: The story of a New Zealand river

02:12, Jun 09 2014

Welcome to our new series on old books at risk of being forgotten contributed by our local library and Browsers bookshop owner Rachel Pope.

Rachel kicks off with a New Zealand classic. 


by Jane Mander

This is a title I always make sure I have on my shelves if I can. I decided to read it because I felt I should, which immediately made it feel like homework. But I loved it!

Jane Mander wrote the novel in 1920 and it's set in the Kaipara, where she in fact lived for a time. Alice arrives from England with her daughter Asia, to marry Tom Roland. Roland is a pioneer intent on making his fortune, and he sets about stripping the Kaipara of its kauri. Alice makes a life for herself and her daughter amongst the sawmillers, the gum-diggers and the neighbours in the small community. Female friendship and educated company are thin on the ground.

Alice anxiously raises her daughter, educating her as best she can. Asia becomes an accomplished pianist and is no doubt proficient in all things that a fine young lady should be! But Asia learns so much more, and this is what makes her a truly remarkable character. She sails a yacht up and down the harbour, as this is their only means of transport in and out of the region. In another scene she lays out the body of a gum-digger. Lastly, and in complete secrecy, she takes a lover.

Asia relishes her freedom and just flourishes. By contrast, Alice's adjustment to her new country is slow, stilted and sometimes painful. This is sometimes of her own making, and at other times not.

This novel was heavily criticised in New Zealand on publication because of its themes of love and relationships. Mander was even described as "sex-obsessed". She defended herself by saying she simply wrote what she felt was the truth. Fortunately she was out of the country at the time of publication. She left New Zealand and in 1912, after a couple of years in Sydney, she went to study journalism at Columbia University in New York. There she was active in the suffragette movement as well as working and excelling at her studies. A remarkable writer and a remarkable book!