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Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff

Once Were Warriors (1990)

by Alan Duff

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Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)

I thought I was prepared for this, having seen the movie (and been blown away by it) a few times now.

I was wrong.

This book hits as hard as Jake "The Muss" Heke. The punches keep on coming and never let up, but it's a book impossible to put down, getting drawn in right from page 1.
As expected, there's a lot more in the book than the movie, and getting to really know the characters through each individual's stream-of-conciousness narration sheds all kinds of lights on the story that it was unable to do visually. What did surprise me, is how several of the characters are actually displayed in a far more sympathetic light in the movie than they are the book. If you've seen the movie, and how unsympathetic they tend to be, you'll understand the surprise!

An absolute must read. ( )
  Sammystarbuck | Jan 19, 2019 |
This review is unquestionably one of the hardest I’ve ever had to write. Maori author Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (1990) won the PEN Best First Book Award, was runner-up in the Goodman Fielder Wattie Award, (the 1968-1993 forerunner to the Ockhams), and was made into an award-winning film in 1994. But it is an uncompromisingly negative portrayal of dysfunctional Maori life, a book which comes in for both high praise and also trenchant criticism from some readers at Goodreads. And since I’m not Maori, and have not yet been to New Zealand and the book depicts a situation now nearly thirty years ago, I feel hesitant about the risk of stereotyping and blaming and of perpetuating assumptions about gender and race.
The early chapters are really shocking. Once Were Warriors pulls no punches about the self-inflicted misery and self-pity of the Maori people on Pine Block, a run-down, squalid government housing estate full of unemployed and unemployable no-hopers.
(You see what I mean? I don’t like describing another culture in this way, but that’s the way the book is written).
Duff uses different voices in the Heke family to paint the picture. Beth, a drinker herself, accepts horrific beatings from her drunken tough-guy husband because ‘she loves him’.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/07/13/once-were-warriors-by-alan-duff-bookreview/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Jul 14, 2018 |
This book portrays the underbelly of modern Maori life, through the compelling story of one family, Beth, Jake, and their children, who live in a government housing estate occupied soley by Maoris. Beth occasionally has good intentions, but usually slips back into the morass of drink, drugs, poverty, spousal abuse, incest, and the prevailing desparation permeating their lives. By far the most haunting are the children, who are abused and basically left to raise themselves.

The book is written in a unique style--there is no dialogue and virtually the entire novel is presented through the interior monologues of the various characters, including the children. This may take some getting used to, and the book can be difficult to read, both in terms of style and subject matter.

The book was made into an excellent movie of the same name, which I saw years ago. ( )
  arubabookwoman | Apr 20, 2017 |
Having seen the movie first I wondered how the book would stack up, I think they make good book ends for one another. While the story is short it was one I had to spend time with because of the language and the themes. Duff writes about abuse, poverty, and suicide in a way that both shocks you but doesn't come off campy. ( )
  SadieRuin | Jan 30, 2017 |
This started out a book review, but it's also a bit of a personal essay, and it's not all pretty. And this is really long, consider yourselves warned :)

I thought about doing the 30 day book challenge, but there's always this one question in those kinds of things that make me pause. This time it was "A book that reminds you of home". And this book (and the devastatingly good movie made from it) are always the first thing that springs to mind.

Ironically the movie came up in a class this week (Cultural Studies class), and everyone turned to me as if to say "It's really overdramatised right?" And I had to tell them no, it's not. So I got stuck writing a paper on it, go me. And I can't, I just can't be academic and objective, because it hurts like a sonuvabitch. So I'm writing it out, in hopes that when I've spilled my soul out here, I won't have any left and I can write that damn paper.

If you don't know it, go watch this (movie trailer, under 2 minutes): Once Were Warriors Trailer

Now I'm not writing this to make anyone feel bad, just that all of us didn't grow up happy, or feeling loved, and home for me is a four letter word. I left when I was 15, not entirely voluntarily, but not entirely unhappily to be out of it either. I haven't spoken to most of my family in 15 years, and now that my grandparents are gone, I don't really have any reason to ever speak to any of them again.

So let's see, why does it remind me of home? Native minority poor, encouraged to urbanise and integrate into white society, but lacking the culture or skills to understand how to do so. Check. Institutionalised poverty. Check. Kids sitting in the car in the pub carpark with a bag of chips and a coke, if they're lucky, while mum and dad are in the pub drinking. Check. Preteen kids cleaning the house of broken beer bottles before school the next morning, after getting no sleep because the party spilled over to the house after the pub closed. Check. Kids sleeping under bridges, huffing superglue, because nobody gives a damn or takes them home, and oh well they're brown kids anyway. Check. Violence as a part of daily life - problems are solved with fists. Check. A complete disconnect from the kids own culture, because the above mentioned urbanization. Check.

For background, Maori make up about 15% of the population of NZ, and are economically doing pretty well right now. But this book is set before that happened, before the resurgence in culture and language and self-sovereignty. Back when we were being encouraged to integrate and assimilate and self-hate and ... lots of other things ending in ate. The title alludes to the fact that once upon a time, Maori were warriors, strong, independent, self-sufficient and proud. But isolated in cities, doing unskilled labour, and drinking away their wages, urban Maori in the 70's and 80's had very little to be proud of. (The book is actually set in the 50's, but it's pretty timeless. The movie is set in the 80's).

The plot? Well, we have Beth Heke, who grew up in a quite different environment, in one of the few Maori settlements that retained it's integrity and connection to the culture - but gave it up for a city boy, Jake. And Jake the Muss (short for muscles) is handsome and charming, and he took her away to the city and they had fine children, but he's a mean mean drunk, and with no hope and nothing really to look forward to, he drinks a lot. And to escape the pain, so does Beth.

The kids are more or less dragging themselves up, and not doing a spectacular job of it: The eldest, Nig, is 18 and joins a gang, just seeking to belong somewhere because he sure doesn't belong at home, and the next oldest is continuously being caught at petty crime, 12 year old Grace is struggling to still see the beauty of the world, with her battered notebook of stories and drawings, many based on Maori legends, and stuck with being a mother figure to the youngest ones.

Two things happen that catalyse things for this damaged family: The story opens with the second oldest son arrested once too many times, and taken away to the foster care, in the hands of an old warrior who still remembers what that means. Now even Beth can't continue to pretend that her family isn't broken. Especially when the reason she can't be there to defend him and ask for him to allowed to come home, is because she can barely stand from the beating she got the night before.

And she tries, she really tries to fix it, but some things just can't be fixed. And so she falls back into the same patterns, the drinking and living with violence, until it all comes to a head in a tragedy that was more or less inevitable. Because some people can survive horrible things happening to them, and some can't, especially when they are young and alone and sensitive.

And I'll tell you now, there is a happy ending, but not in the "and everyone lived their wildest dreams forever after" sense, but more in a "rage, rage against the dying of the light" sense. Beth finds strength and reconnects with her true self, and her family and her culture, and finally does fix things, but it's too late for at least one of the children, and it's far far too late for Jake, who is just too damaged to save. But Beth finally stops going gentle into anyone's night and takes her life and her children's into her own hands, and you get a sense that maybe the light isn't dying after all, it's just the dark before a dawn.

Thing is, I could have been Beth Heke. My mother pretty much was. And I could have been Grace, except I was luckier than her. And when people say "oh you're from New Zealand, it's so beautiful there, how could you ever leave", I want to hand them a copy of this book and say "this is why". Except I don't, because they saw Lord of the Rings and all that spectacular scenery and all the happy brown people in the tourist ads, and they just don't want to hear it.

And yes, I know things have changed, and a lot, but there's things you can't forgive, and places that even thinking about going to are painful, so I smile and nod and say "yes, it's very beautiful". I mean look at this picture: I used to live here, for the last couple of years before I left NZ, my old house is just off the left of the picture. People see these pictures and just think "ahh, heavenly" and there's so much more to it than that.


If you read this far, you're probably thinking you don't want to read this book, but really, it's good. There's a reason it's a NZ classic. But it's bleak, and violent and angry, and well. Maybe you should get the movie. It's not a fun read, and I doubt anyone who ever read it said they loved it the way you can love something that makes you happy. But if you think NZ is all sunshine and hobbits, this will give you a very different view.

Warning though, there is some serious violence including (really don't click this if you are sensitive):
an underage rape, and a suicide

And I am still too angry/sad to write any kind of academic analysis of either of them.

( )
  krazykiwi | Aug 22, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679761810, Paperback)

Once Were Warriors is Alan Duff's harrowing vision of his country's indigenous people two hundred years after the English conquest. In prose that is both raw and compelling, it tells the story of Beth Heke, a Maori woman struggling to keep her family from falling apart, despite the squalor and violence of the housing projects in which they live. Conveying both the rich textures of Maori tradition and the wounds left by its absence, Once Were Warriors is a masterpiece of unblinking realism, irresistible energy, and great sorrow.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:03 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Once Were Warriors is Alan Duff's harrowing vision of his country's indigenous people two hundred years after the English conquest. In prose that is both raw and compelling, it tells the story of Beth Heke, a Maori woman struggling to keep her family from falling apart, despite the squalor and violence of the housing projects in which they live.… (more)

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