Book Review – The Whale Rider

By: Randolph Giudice
Oahu Island News

When Niki Caro’s latest film won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, it was praised for its stirring depiction of Maori life in New Zealand and a contemporary story as powerful as ancient legend.  Thankfully, its best moments are alive and well in the book that inspired the film, Witi Ihimaera’s lovely coming of age tale, The Whale Rider.

When Kahu is born into a Maori tribe in Whangara, New Zealand, her great-grandfather, Koro Apirana wants nothing to do with the child.  Not only has Kahu broken the male line of descent in the tribe, her father has sacrilegiously named her after Kahuti Te Rangi, the legendary "Whale Rider" who brought their people to Whangara.  Kahu craves the old man’s affection, but Koro is too busy selecting the next chief of the tribe to notice the young girl.  Not only does Kahu act more like a Maori than the young boys around her do; she seems to have a connection with whales that only her ancestors possessed.  While Koro stubbornly searches for the boy  "who can pull the sword," and lead the tribe, he refuses to believe that his people’s savior may be the young girl he has rejected.

"Once there were many protectors.  Now there are few.  Listen to how empty our sea has become." Koro laments the disappearance of the whales, and the broken covenant between the Maoris and the natural world.

It’s a moment that strikes to the heart of the Maori dilemma. Under the British Commonwealth, the Maori have become two distinctly different people: A race of warriors loyal to ancestral tradition, and the "going-nowhere nobodies" of New Zealand’s welfare state.  In Once Were Warriors, the Marae - the tribal place of worship - was a Grail amidst the grim reality of state built housing.  In Ihimaera’s book, the Marae is center-stage, and in desperate need of healing.

Kahu acts as the bridge between two foundering souls:  Koro, the "old whale stranded in an alien present," and the ancient bull whale who grieves for the loss of human companion, the "Golden Rider," Kahutia Te Rangi.  When Kahu finally reunites the tribe with their wayward spirit, the moment reflects the deepest drive of mythology: Recapturing innocence.  Kahu stands as a lovable update of the Maori hero, charging Ihimaera’s tale with a refreshing element of girl-power absent in classical mythology.

Tales of redemption abound in Maori culture.  Like Lee Tamahori’s film, Once Were Warriors and Keri Hulme’s award winning novel The Bone People, The Whale Rider places a moving story of love and forgiveness against the backdrop of myth.

The Whale Rider is a little book, to be sure, but like the "cetacean crib" Ihimaera beautifully describes in her book, it is the reservoir of timeless creation.

Island myths are often governed by the physical laws of the island itself, with punishment and salvation coming in on the tides.  But Ihimaera might see it differently:   Bad things don’t happen because we can’t talk to the whales, they happen because we’ve stopped trying. The Whale Rider is finally a story about resuming that conversation between our spirits and us.   Like the whales’ song, the equation is simple and filled with promise:  "You have called and I have come, bearing the gifts of the Gods." 

The Whale Rider, by Witi Ihimaera
150 pages.
Harcourt Books