Interpellating Maurice Gee

By Smith, Anna | Journal of New Zealand Literature, February 2015 | Go to article overview

Interpellating Maurice Gee


Smith, Anna, Journal of New Zealand Literature


Interpellating Maurice Gee Review of Maurice Gee A Literary Companion: The Fiction for Younger Readers, edited by Elizabeth Hale (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2014).

A lot of things are going on in the new collection of essays on Maurice Gee's writing for children. This busy-ness gives A Literary Companion a stimulating and at times provocative voice, but it also makes for a bumpy reading experience. The introduction indicates that the contributors will talk across and to each other, one of the potentially interesting and valuable modes of discussion in the book as it offers a sense of the praxis of evolving literary criticism about a major New Zealand writer who produces work for both adults and children. Here is the opportunity to strike out into new territory, to provide a ground-breaking journey across one of the few author-specific surveys of local children's literature. Although other critical essays have been published elsewhere on Gee's writing for children, Hale's is the first to assemble a number and to reflect collaboratively and in foundational ways on the oeuvre.

The fact that Gee has frequently represented his writing for children as 'open cast' mining as opposed to the deeper excavations of his adult writing is revisited a number of times by contributors, each of whom find it a less than satisfactory trope. Yet the danger is of this common thread becoming repetitive simply through restatement, obscuring other distinctive ways of seeing what each essay may offer. Despite the editor's best intentions, because the cross-chapter conversations fail to coalesce analytically, they equally obscure the other crucial task of the collection, which is presumably to showcase the most insightful, individual critical writing on Gee as a children's author.

The book opens with a chapter by Claudia Marquis on Gee's early fantasy novels, from Under the Mountain through to the trilogy of O books. Of all the essayists, Marquis is the most ambitious theoretically. Her contribution turns the body of academic criticism on fantasy including key works by Derek Brewer, Colin Manlove and Farah Mendlesohn, Todorov and Tolkien into a companion which allows her to make connections between international conversations about imaginative literature and the darker side of Gee's fantasies for children. I would recommend this to higher undergraduate and Honours students. It is sophisticated, tightly argued and shows clearly how the fantasy genre for children does not need to be superficial. And how Gee's narratives distinguish themselves from standard genre expectations through representing a distinctly Kiwi register and culture within which maturation occurs.

Diane Hebley's essay on Gee's quintet of realist novels for children published between 1986 and 1999 is at its strongest when it picks out the ironic reversals of speech and behaviour between adults and children (p. 65) to be found throughout. She is alert to the feeling for local historical and moral discourses Gee provides as a background for each of these texts set during World War 1 (The Fire-Raiser), World War II (The Champion), Henderson at the time of the Waterfront dispute, and the 1970s (Orchard Street and The Fat Man respectively), that provide a colour and emotional depth not so readily found in the early fantasies.

Chapter Three belongs to Elizabeth Hale. Here she explores Gee's later trilogy of futuristic novels for young adults (Salt, Gool and The Limping Man) and asks to what extent good can prevail in a predominantly evil environment. Survival, she argues, depends on 'fighting back' (p. 93) and entails a more complex kind of heroics and moral patterning. I was intrigued to see Hale's ambivalent reference to Roberta Trites. Known for her contribution to critical readings of adolescents in youth literature, Trites's position is essentially Foucauldian with some important qualifications over subjectivity. Hale points out that Trites's model for coming of age does not entirely work with Gee (p. …

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