A New Zealand Story
By Christina Thompson
288 pp. $24.99
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Chance took Christina Thompson from Boston to a remote part of New Zealand's North Island.
It was the 1980s, she was on her way back to graduate school in Australia after spending Christmas holidays with her family, and she had a week to spend before school resumed. At the end of that week, in the small village of Kerikeri, "I was booked on the late bus back to Auckland and, looking for a way to spend my last few hours, I wandered over to the pub."
Chance also took a Maori foundryman named Tauwhitu (TOE-fee-too) to the same pub at the same time. Also home for Christmas, also killing time, he was standing next to her when a fight broke out between a Maori and a New Zealander of European descent.
Afterward, she asked what had happened and he said, with typical vagueness, "Someone said something someone didn't like," asked her for a light, and they began to talk.
Thompson missed her bus and, before long, married Tauwhitu, whose name means "seven years" in Maori. He is the seventh of 10 children and so is called "Seven" by everyone.
Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All presents their life together, this American scholar of Pacific literature and her blue-collar Maori husband, as they wander from New Zealand to Australia to Boston to Hawaii and back, finally, to Thompson's childhood home, where she is now editor of the Harvard Review.
If it were nothing more than a memoir, Thompson's first book would make fascinating reading as the story of a mismatched but loving pair making their way in a world where they can never really be at home: "We were such an unlikely couple. I was small and blonde, he was a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound Polynesian. I had a Ph.D., he went to trade school. I liked opera, he liked motorsports."
Charming, insightful, honest, balanced, the book offers a unique look at the pressures of marriage across cultural, racial, and geographical boundaries. Thompson creates a vivid portrait of Seven, a tolerant, calm, nonjudgmental man, "the easiest person to be with I had ever met," but also deeply mysterious to her, wholly other, even after two decades together.
She also writes thoughtfully and clearly about the ways their marriage resonates beyond its own private space, especially when the first of their three children is born: "What had begun as a romance of two individuals was transformed by this event into an entanglement of tribes, a web of indebtedness and responsibility that extended not only into the future but back into the past."
Thompson may have been "an interested outsider" among Seven's family, but the children are insiders, part of each parent's long family history, descended from Maori warriors as well as colonial Americans whom Thompson's mother refers to as "Indian-killers," and "this history is alive in" them.
But Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All is more than a memoir. It incorporates Thompson's extensive research into New Zealand and Maori history, and the early European exploration of the Pacific islands. It explores sociological considerations of the culture clash between colonizer and colonized, and the ways that such myths as the Maori's savage ferocity are perpetuated. It offers literary analysis of a few works of Maori fiction, and passages of evocative travel writing.
All these elements are used to clarify and give broad dimension to her book's central concern with the impact of racism and colonialism on indigenous cultures, an impact she has felt viscerally as Seven's companion in the world. It is this linkage between the larger issues and intimate experience that gives her book a richness, whether Thompson is writing about historical events or her life with Seven and "the heady mix of stereotypes about class and race and sex and power" surrounding it.
At heart a love story, Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All is a moving examination of exploration - both inner and outer - and the way our travels into remote places on Earth can become travels into the remote places in our hearts and souls. This is something Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville knew and wrote about in settings as exotic as Thompson's.
Like theirs, her book emphasizes how public and private discovery intertwine, and brings home a shared sense of responsibility for what happens when two different worlds, two different ways of being, collide.