The People Before

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Transcript of The People Before

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Maurice Shadbolt

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Shadbolt, Maurice (1932–2004), fiction writer and playwright,

was born in Auckland and educated at Te Kuiti HS, AvondaleCollege and Auckland University College.

He worked as a journalist for various New Zealand newspapersand as a scriptwriter and director of documentary films for theNew Zealand National Film Unit until 1957, when he left for

Europe. This period of his life is recorded in One of Ben’s: ANew Zealand Medley  (1993). Before he returned in 1960 hepublished his first book, a collection of stories grandly titledThe New Zealanders (1959). Although the book broughtShadbolt immediate recognition in Britain, where it was highlypraised by such influential reviewers as Alan Sillitoe and Muriel

Spark, in New Zealand the critical response was predominantly,and probably unfairly, negative. The eleven stories chronicledNew Zealand’s social history during the first half of the

twentieth century, introducing themes which have remainedimportant throughout Shadbolt’s oeuvre.

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Maurice Shadbolt is a major New Zealand writer, with an

impressive body of work which also includessuccessful non-fiction work such as the Shell Guide toNew Zealand (1968). In a writing career whichspanned five decades he won fellowships and almostevery major literary prize, some on more than one

occasion: the Landfall Prose Award in 1957, theScholarship in Letters in 1959, 1970 and 1982, theKatherine Mansfield Memorial Award in 1963, 1967 and1995, the Burns Fellowship in 1963, the KatherineMansfield Memorial Fellowship in 1998, the JamesWattie Award in 1978, 1981 and 1987, and the New

Zealand Book Award in 1981. In 1989 he was madeCBE. Above all, however, Shadbolt should berecognised for his storytelling talent. That almost allhis books remain in print is testament to his enduringpopularity with a wide reading public.

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The story is about an unnamed family who struggle toimprove a dairy farm. The father has bought the farmcheap from the owners (the people before) who havenot made much in the way of a farm at all.

The father has watched his father work for otherpeople all his life and he makes up his mind that hewill buy land and be his own boss. During the WorldWar I Gallipoli campaign, the father‟s thoughts ofowning his own land kept his hopes up at the darkestmoments of the fighting.

There are two sons. Jim is the younger and does nottake to farming too well. He is weakish and hismother keeps him inside, whereas the older brother(the narrator of the story) loves the outdoors and ismuch more „his father‟s boy.‟

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The father concentrates on improving the flat landfor cattle and ignores the hills which he sees as anuisance. Jim is an imaginative sort of child andexplores the hill area. He finds caves and Maoriadzes. His father‟s interest is immediately that theymight have some worth. The two brothers explorethe area more and find a cave with a human skull init. Clearly there has been some Maori occupationthere at some time in the past (another set of„people before‟). They keep the knowledge secret. 

The land is hard to work and often the father thinksof giving up, but pride and invested achievementkeep him there. It is the time of the Great Depression1929-1933 and the father has no time for themoanings of the city folk.

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A group of Maori visit the farm one day to allow thedying old father a last chance to see the land of hisyouth. All the tribe know every detail of the farm andthe hill which was once a Pa site and saw battles withthe British, ending with the Maori tribe abandoningthe land: not worth any more deaths. Jim befriendsthe Maori group and offers the adzes which theyrefuse. The old Maori man is dying and the group staythe night and leave him buried on the hillside. Thefather is outraged and gets the police in but no-one

can find the body. The father sees things differently now and senses

that his efforts are insignificant alongside that ofthese „people before‟. He sells up and the familymoves from farm to farm.

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The two boys go off to World War II. On theirreturn Jim goes to university and the olderbrother stays on the farm to take over from hisfather („the one before‟). When they talk about

the war one day, they both have the same tale ofthinking about a fond moment to help themthrough just as their father had done in WWI.Jim tells his brother he thinks of the adzes andthe burial cave and the Maori family who left

their father in a grave in a cave. His olderbrother seems to feel cheated that his youngerbrother has such a fond memory of the place andseems to understand the real name of the farm:Te Wahiokoahoki, the place of happy return.

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1 Describe the early farm after the father bought

it „for a song‟. Who were the „people before‟? 

2 What do we get to know about the father‟s

character and that of the mother and the two

boys?

Find some lines to quote which typify each

character.

3 Towards the end of part 1, Jim goes to the

abandoned hill area. He finds a cave with

adzes and also a human skull. What is the

father‟s attitude to the adzes? What does the

author hint at now about „the people before‟? 

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4 This part opens with a reference to the end ofthe depression. What year is that, roughly?

5 In the first pages of this section explain how thefather‟s view of the land and his work has

changed.6 On p 206 the mother says “perhaps they‟ve got

happy memories of this place”. After readingPart 2, how does this statement seem ironic?

7 Describe why the Maori family have come to thefarm.

8 Re-read the last ten lines of part 2. Why doesthe son think his father might have said orfelt something else?

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9 What action has completely astounded the

father?

10 In what way have the brothers remained

the same?11 Re-read the conclusion to the story. Why

does the older brother think that Jim has

„beaten‟ him? 

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1 To how many people does the title „the

people before‟ apply? 

2 What differences in values do various owners

of the land have?3 What do you get to know about New Zealand

farm life in the 1930‟s? 

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SUMMARY: Maurice Shadbolt is one of the towering figuresof New Zealand literature, winning numerous awards andaccolades for his work, much of which examines the historyof the country through narrative. The central characters inthis story are carving out a farming existence on the land,

and the importance of land ownership to the family is madeapparent in a number of phrases in the story. The narratortells us that „my father took on that farm‟, he refers to theimportance of „Land of your own,‟ which becomes „yourown little kingdom‟. The suggestions of the history of theland come through the discovery of the greenstone adzes

and attitudes to the land are brought to the fore with thevisit of the Maori group. Although Shadbolt characterisesTom Taikaka as pleasant, courteous and patient, there isthe constant underlying acknowledgement of theEuropeans‟ displacing of the Maori from their land. Jim‟sattempt at restoring the greenstone to Tom is symbolic of

an attempt at restitution, and the reader is left tointerpret Tom‟s reluctant refusal. The return of the Maorielder to the land in death, and his disappearance, isanother indication of his unity with the landscape and againdemonstrates the different attitudes to land held by theMaoris and the Europeans, attitudes which remain polarised

in the brothers at the end of the story.

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Wider reading 

Strangers and Journey s or The Lovelock Version by MauriceShadbolt

Playing Waterloo by Peter Hawes

 

Compare with   Journey  by Patricia Grace

Her First Ball by Katherine Mansfield

The Enemy  by VS Naipaul

 

Online 

Biographical information and a critical review of Shadbolt‟s workis available at:

http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/shadboltm.html 

This newspaper obituary is also interesting:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article497710.ece