The people before - Miss Thompson Media

Maurice Shadbolt
Shadbolt, Maurice (1932–2004), fiction writer and playwright,
was born in Auckland and educated at Te Kuiti HS, Avondale
College and Auckland University College.
He worked as a journalist for various New Zealand newspapers
and as a scriptwriter and director of documentary films for the
New Zealand National Film Unit until 1957, when he left for
Europe. This period of his life is recorded in One of Ben’s: A
New Zealand Medley (1993). Before he returned in 1960 he
published his first book, a collection of stories grandly titled
The New Zealanders (1959). Although the book brought
Shadbolt immediate recognition in Britain, where it was highly
praised 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 chronicled
New Zealand’s social history during the first half of the
twentieth century, introducing themes which have remained
important throughout Shadbolt’s oeuvre.
Maurice Shadbolt is a major New Zealand writer, with an
impressive body of work which also includes
successful non-fiction work such as the Shell Guide to
New Zealand (1968). In a writing career which
spanned five decades he won fellowships and almost
every major literary prize, some on more than one
occasion: the Landfall Prose Award in 1957, the
Scholarship in Letters in 1959, 1970 and 1982, the
Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award in 1963, 1967 and
1995, the Burns Fellowship in 1963, the Katherine
Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in 1998, the James
Wattie Award in 1978, 1981 and 1987, and the New
Zealand Book Award in 1981. In 1989 he was made
CBE. Above all, however, Shadbolt should be
recognised for his storytelling talent. That almost all
his books remain in print is testament to his enduring
popularity with a wide reading public.
The story is about an unnamed family who struggle to
improve a dairy farm. The father has bought the farm
cheap from the owners (the people before) who have
not made much in the way of a farm at all.
The father has watched his father work for other
people all his life and he makes up his mind that he
will buy land and be his own boss. During the World
War I Gallipoli campaign, the father’s thoughts of
owning his own land kept his hopes up at the darkest
moments of the fighting.
There are two sons. Jim is the younger and does not
take to farming too well. He is weakish and his
mother keeps him inside, whereas the older brother
(the narrator of the story) loves the outdoors and is
much more ‘his father’s boy.’
The father concentrates on improving the flat land
for cattle and ignores the hills which he sees as a
nuisance. Jim is an imaginative sort of child and
explores the hill area. He finds caves and Maori
adzes. His father’s interest is immediately that they
might have some worth. The two brothers explore
the area more and find a cave with a human skull in
it. Clearly there has been some Maori occupation
there 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 thinks
of giving up, but pride and invested achievement
keep him there. It is the time of the Great Depression
1929-1933 and the father has no time for the
moanings of the city folk.
A group of Maori visit the farm one day to allow the
dying old father a last chance to see the land of his
youth. All the tribe know every detail of the farm and
the hill which was once a Pa site and saw battles with
the British, ending with the Maori tribe abandoning
the land: not worth any more deaths. Jim befriends
the Maori group and offers the adzes which they
refuse. The old Maori man is dying and the group stay
the night and leave him buried on the hillside. The
father 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 of
these ‘people before’. He sells up and the family
moves from farm to farm.
The two boys go off to World War II. On their
return Jim goes to university and the older
brother stays on the farm to take over from his
father (‘the one before’). When they talk about
the war one day, they both have the same tale of
thinking about a fond moment to help them
through just as their father had done in WWI.
Jim tells his brother he thinks of the adzes and
the burial cave and the Maori family who left
their father in a grave in a cave. His older
brother seems to feel cheated that his younger
brother has such a fond memory of the place and
seems to understand the real name of the farm:
Te Wahiokoahoki, the place of happy return.
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
Find some lines to quote which typify each
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
author hint at now about ‘the people before’?
4 This part opens with a reference to the end of
the depression. What year is that,
5 In the first pages of this section explain how the
father’s view of the land and his
work has
6 On p 206 the mother says “perhaps they’ve got
happy memories of this place”. After reading
Part 2, how does this statement seem ironic?
7 Describe why the Maori family have come to the
8 Re-read the last ten lines of part 2. Why does
the son think his father might have said
felt something else?
9 What action has completely astounded the
In what way have the brothers remained
the same?
Re-read the conclusion to the story. Why
does the older brother think that Jim has
‘beaten’ him?
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?
SUMMARY: Maurice Shadbolt is one of the towering figures
of New Zealand literature, winning numerous awards and
accolades for his work, much of which examines the history
of the country through narrative. The central characters in
this story are carving out a farming existence on the land,
and the importance of land ownership to the family is made
apparent in a number of phrases in the story. The narrator
tells us that ‘my father took on that farm’, he refers to the
importance of ‘Land of your own,’ which becomes ‘your
own little kingdom’. The suggestions of the history of the
land come through the discovery of the greenstone adzes
and attitudes to the land are brought to the fore with the
visit of the Maori group. Although Shadbolt characterises
Tom Taikaka as pleasant, courteous and patient, there is
the constant underlying acknowledgement of the
Europeans’ displacing of the Maori from their land. Jim’s
attempt at restoring the greenstone to Tom is symbolic of
an attempt at restitution, and the reader is left to
interpret Tom’s reluctant refusal. The return of the Maori
elder to the land in death, and his disappearance, is
another indication of his unity with the landscape and again
demonstrates the different attitudes to land held by the
Maoris and the Europeans, attitudes which remain polarised
in the brothers at the end of the story.
Wider reading
Strangers and Journeys or The Lovelock Version by Maurice
Playing Waterloo by Peter Hawes
Compare with
Journey by Patricia Grace
Her First Ball by Katherine Mansfield
The Enemy by VS Naipaul
Biographical information and a critical review of Shadbolt’s work
is available at:
This newspaper obituary is also interesting:

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