Sunday 10 September 2017

{Reviewed by STELLA}

Sleeps Standing / Moetū is a bilingual Maori-English novella from Witi Ihimaera with a translation by Hēmi Kelly. Set against the backdrop of the New Zealand Wars, it tells the story of the Battle of Ōrākau through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Moetū. A blend of fact and fiction, it draws on primary resources (some of which are included in the appendices) and other historical and cultural material (illustrations, photographs, and stills from the film Rewi’s Last Stand, and waiata). Ihimaera takes up the story as a retelling of ancestral history to a new generation. When Simon arrives from Sydney with his heavily pregnant girlfriend requesting the name  Moetū for their soon-to-arrive child, Papa Rua and his sister, the matriarch of the family, tell Moetū’s story, and here unfolds the defence of Ōrākau and the wider story of Maori fighting for their land and their lives against the colonial forces and the crown’s insatiable appetite for land and control. The defence of Ōrākau in 1864 lasted three days. The Maori group of 300, lead by Rewi Maniapoto, included Rangatira, leaders, and warriors of high standing from several tribal groups who joined together in defiance. The colonial troops numbered 1700 and far exceeded the Maori not only in numbers but in rations and weaponry, with more guns, ammunition, and grenades. The 300 at Ōrākau included women and children, and, between them, they had a small assortment of guns, their taiaha and mere. The colonial troops arrived earlier than expected, before all the fortifications were in place, and they quickly cut off access to food and water supplies. Before the end of the second day, water was scarce, food almost non-existent and many had been wounded or killed. The group had no intention of surrendering and clever ruses, as well as ingenious planning and fierce fighting, kept the troops at bay for a further day. While many lost their lives and the pa was overrun by the superior forces, several escaped - many to fight for their land and people in further battles. Moetū, a clever young man, is quickly recognised for his strategic abilities and is given the task of caring for the children and nursing mothers. He not only is able to care for them, but also takes control of the armory, and utilises the children to distribute the dwindling supplies of ammunition (some of which was peach stones and bullets fashioned from wood) to each fighting sector. When Ōrākau falls, Moetū, along with several others his age, is charged with taking the children to safety through the swamp, armed horse-backed soldiers at their heels, and into the forest, and finally to take these orphans home to their various iwi, a task that takes several months, hiding from colonial forces (Maori were banned from travelling in groups and had a 6pm curfew) and avoiding skirmishes. Few novels have been written about the New Zealand Wars. There are many stories to be told, particularly from the Maori viewpoint, and Ihimaera does this incredibly well, bringing this history to life in an accessible manner, writing a beautiful novella that is a love story, a fascinating account of an incredible battle - an account which is historically accurate and informative, a compelling and compassionate tale of one young man, and a glimpse into the courageous lives of those he fought with. Yet is more than this, it is a history that needs to be heard, that needs to be understood, injustices talked about and addressed. Reading this will compel you to seek out more accounts, both factual and fictional, to understand and learn from our histories. 

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