“The Whale Rider” by Witi Ihimaera wasn’t what I was expecting: it deals with many more cultural, gender, and environmental issues than the average children’s book. The setting is a Maori village in New Zealand where Kahu has just been born. She’s the first great-grandchild in her extended family, and her great-grandfather, Koro, is not happy about it. Koro is the tribal chief, and he wanted a boy heir. As Kahu grows up from a toddler to a young child, it’s heartbreaking to see her unswerving devotion to her great-grandfather, despite his perpetual rejection of her.
The book highlights several conflicts, including between majority culture and minorities, between patriarchal gender roles for men and women, and between those who value our connection to the environment and those who exploit and damage it. Maori legend tells us humans used to be able to communicate with whales, and there’s a tension between that history and the modern practice of whaling. (If you haven’t seen “The Cove,” the documentary about dolphin hunting that won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, watch it now.)
I liked that the narrator is someone unexpected: 24-year-old Rawiri, Kahu’s uncle. Rawiri’s adventures in Australia and Papua New Guinea were some of the most interesting parts of the book. I relate with Rawiri not just because he’s also a younger son who’s into motorcycles, but for his struggle to reconcile a traditional upbringing with leaving it for a cosmopolitan, hedonistic culture. “The Whale Rider” is a thought-provoking read. While interspersed legend retelling (including the first two chapters) slows it down with too many adjectives and adverbs, most of the exposition and dialogue is rollicking fun. 4 out of 5 stars.
Like many Westerners, I watched Niki Caro’s renowned film adaptation of “The Whale Rider” prior to reading the actual book. I was 13 at the time. When I did read it, and every other time I’ve re-read it, it proved two things to me: 1. Don’t heavily rely on Niki Caro on making film adaptations precisely like the book (for the two are quite different) and 2. There’s a voice in author Witi Ihimaera that is otherwise lacking in contemporary literature.
“The Whale Rider” is a beautiful story about overcoming the odds and maintaining tradition while striving forward into the future. It mixes Maori mythology with contemporary issues the Maori community deals with, synced together beautifully and harmoniously. The book, like many of Ihimaera’s other works, also does justice to finding a balance between the seriousness of the issues addressed, and maintaining an on-point sense of humor.
If anything, I would consider “The Whale Rider” to be a must-read, especially nowadays where we appear to be entering — what looks like — a fourth wave of feminism. Equality of women and how they’re perceived is one of the major themes that’s touched upon in the novel, and Ihimaera addresses it in a way as to where it’s respectable and admirable. After all, who hasn’t gotten a kick out of Nanny Flowers giving Koro a hard time over the way he treats the girls and women of the family?
Even after nine years since I first read it, “The Whale Rider” remains a firm favorite book of mine, and something tells me that it always will be.