Book review: Sleeps Standing Moetu, Witi Ihimaera with Hemi Kelly

Author Witi Ihimaera.
Siobhan Harvey

Author Witi Ihimaera.

Sleeps Standing Moetu, by Witi Ihimaera with Hemi Kelly, Vintage, $35 

The Battle of Orakau, popularised as Rewi's Last Stand, was a defining moment of our 19th-century history. It brought the Land Wars to a close and ushered in the confiscation of huge tracts of Maori land by the Crown. In many ways, we are still living with its consequences.

Witi Ihimaera's fascinating novella mixes fact and fiction in retelling the tragic story of the battle. It also mixes, innovatively, both English and Maori. Ably abetted by translator Hemi Kelly, Ihimaera has produced a parallel text, giving access to both the richness and poeticism of the Maori text and to the gritty realism of the English. Its bifocal perspective lends great depth to the story. A further framing device is the modern story of a returning whanau member seeking a name for his son. Also added are surviving eye-witness accounts.

Sleeps Standing Moetu by Witi Ihimaera with Hemi Kelly.

Sleeps Standing Moetu by Witi Ihimaera with Hemi Kelly.

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The battle itself was an encounter between technological advantage, superior force and supplies, and passionate attachment to the land, guile and a strong sense of community. Like many such similar conflicts – think Thermopylae, Culloden and Dien Bien Phu – its ramifications were both political and poetic. It inspired legends and acted as a rallying point for future generations.

The battle at Orakau pa in the Waipa lasted three days in 1864. Over its course, 300 Maori defenders, including women and children, fought a British army almost six times their number. They were armed with the latest guns, grenades and artillery. The defenders ran out of food, water and ammunition. In the end they were reduced to firing lumps of wood.

The climax of the battle came with the British, under Captain Mair, call for surrender. They were met with chief Rewi Manga Maniapoto famous riposte, "E hoa, ka whawhai tonu matou, ake, ake, ake!" (Friend, I shall fight against you for ever, for ever!).

Following the battle, about half the defenders escaped, fleeing through bush and swamps, constantly under British attack. A party of children, led by Moetu, eventually returned to their whanau.

It is through the wily and ingenious Moetu's eyes that Ihimaera tells his story. The choice of a young innocent allows Ihimaera both the intensity of the action and the overview of a roving participant, as Moetu kept the gunners supplied. It is also an inspired idea in retelling the aftermath of the battle, as it was Moetu who led the children's escape. What it does not do so well, however, is record the long-term consequences of the conflict. Ihimaera has to step in as author for this.

The events of Maori history have long been a fertile source of stories for Ihimaera. The Te Kooti wars in The Matriarch, Rua Kenana in The Dream Swimmer and his play, All Our Sons, on Maori soldiers in World War I all mine this rich seam.

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Particularly impressive in this novella is Hemi Kelly's erudite and passionate introduction. He raises the important point of commemoration. How do we honour the combatants of a civil war in an accurate and dignified way? Ihimaera's novella is an important step in that direction.

 - Stuff

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