Will any members of the Heke family be able to escape the violence and substance abuse that claims most of their slum’s Maori residents?
Country Focus: New Zealand
Once Were Warriors
By Alan Duff
Originally published in New Zealand by Tandem Press, 1990.
My edition: University of Queensland Press,1998.
Time period: Contemporary
Once Were Warriors introduces the reader to a profoundly dysfunctional Maori family. The Hekes – Jake, Beth and their brood of six children – subsist primarily on a diet of fear, violence, smokes and beer in their Pine Block slum.
Author Alan Duff ably switches points of view between Beth, Jake, their daughter Grace and son Nig, giving readers different perspectives of life on the bottom rung in New Zealand. Duff is at his best when channeling Jake, whose character roars off the page with the line, “Man, I juss wake up wanting to punch somefuckin one.”
Filled with unchecked fury, Jake’s character makes an excellent vehicle for the question: How does a Maori exemplify his or her warrior heritage in modern society?
Through violence. Jake “the Muss” (short for muscle) Heke sees himself as a throwback, a warrior like the Maori of old. He’ll enthusiastically attack anyone – a local, a stranger, a gang member and even his wife – if they show him even a hint of disrespect.
Through toughness. Beth stoically endures her husband’s regular beatings. She knows firsthand the Maori penchant for “beer and fists,” but also feels a fierce pride for her people.
Through tradition and respect for the old ways. Fourteen-year-old Boogie, the son Jake despises for not being tough enough, learns tribal customs that give him direction and freedom.
Through becoming an outlaw. Seventeen-year-old Nig is a prospect for the notorious Maori gang known as the Brown Fists. He figures that the only occupation that’s available to a brown-skinned Pine Blocker like him is gangbanger.
Or is warriorhood moot? When fourteen-year-old Grace looks at her people, she’s depressed by what she sees. The phrase “The Lost Tribe” keeps running through her mind. To escape, she sits in a tree overlooking the home of a neighboring wealthy white family, the Tramberts, who seem otherworldly in their splendor and kindness toward each other.
Love them or hate them, each of these characters and many of the supporting ones are imbued with a formidable amount of charisma. Combined with Duff’s casual, rhythmic and profane vernacular, Once Were Warriors makes for one intense read.
No Maori I ever knew ever lusted after having things. It’s here – Beth patted her heart area – it’s here where we want for ourselves. Patted her belly. And here. Laughing. Food. We love our food. Even when we know it’s bad for us, killing us early even. We say what the hell, it don’t matter, it was sweet while it lasted. What they call it? Laid back, that’ s the term. We’re a laid-back race. Cept when we’re drunk. Then we lay out. Other people that is. Lay em out as soon as look atem. Half our trouble: beer and fists and having passion. They don’t mix.