Alan Duff, Once Were Warriors, Vintage Books, 2012, ISBN: 978177553285. First published 1990.
Heartbreaking. I don’t have a better word for Once Were Warriors. As the individual members of the Heke family slowly drift to their various fates I cried for them, and I hoped that they each would make that one small change, take that one extra step that might alter the future for them.
Beth Heke almost manages to break away from her life when her son Boogie (nicknamed for the Boogie Ghost that scared him as a child) is sent to a Boys Home after his parents forgot to turn up to his court appearance for theft. Too drunk, too hungover. The shock is enough to keep Beth sober for three months – long enough to save the money to rent a car and buy some treats to go and visit Boog. But as she and her husband Jake and their other children drive past McClutchy’s bar Jake’s friends say “Ya comin in or not?” and Jake says “Just one? Dear?”, and the day is gone.
Beth blames her Maori culture:
The going-nowhere nobodies who populate this state-owned, half of us state-fed, slum. The Maoris. Or most ofem are.
Feeling like a traitor in her own midst because her thoughts so often turned to disgust, disapproval, shame and sometimes to anger, even hate. Of them, her own people. And how they carried on. At the restrictions they put on themselves (and so their choiceless children) of assuming life to be this daily struggle, this acceptance they were a lesser people; and boozing away their lives and the booze making things all distorted and warped and violent.
It would be tempting to read Once Were Warriors as a black and white morality tale that concludes that traditional Maori culture is good, and the loss of it is bad. Beth and Jake are disconnected from their culture, as are many of their neighbours in the Pine Block public housing estate. When Beth returns to her childhood pa, her village, and sees what a re-connection with culture is doing for Boogie, and how her estranged extended family can still honour Grace, she seeks redemption for herself and for many of her people in a return to traditional understandings of the Maori way.
But it’s not as simple as that. Many of the Hekes’ Pine Block neighbours have some degree of connection with their Maori heritage, and yet continue to live the lives that Beth despises but cannot yet herself leave behind. Others are as disconnected as the Hekes but manage to register disapproval of Jake’s self-absorption and violence. Grace Heke, like her parents, has little understanding of traditional Maori life. Yet she is able to see beyond her daily life, at least until an act of fundamental betrayal convinces her that there is no potential left in her. And it was the Maori cultural practice of slavery that drove Jake Heke to reject a more traditional life and to jealously guard his manhood and pride, usually with his fists.
What each of the Hekes are looking for is identity and belonging. It’s not so much about being Maori as about being part of a community that values itself and its members. Beth and Jake’s oldest son, Nig, is searching for that belonging in the criminal gang the Brown Fists, but even at the moment of being accepted there he finds he has to leave other more valuable links behind. Grace’s loss of trust in what little community she has is too much for her. And while Beth and Boogie are finding a new way of being in an old culture, Jake’s possible redemption seems to come with a second chance to be a different kind of man, one who can perhaps, just for a moment, put aside his reputation and take responsibility for himself and for someone else.
It’s a cliché to call a book powerful, but it is a word that recurred to me as I read Once Were Warriors. I found it deeply affecting, troubling and yet beautiful. Heartbreakingly so.