Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pg. 99: Christina Thompson's "Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story by Christina Thompson.

About the book, from the publisher:
An extraordinary love story between a Maori man and an American woman, that inspires a graceful, revelatory search for understanding about the centuries-old collision of two wildly different cultures.

Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All is the story of the cultural collision between Westerners and the Maoris of New Zealand, told partly as a history of the complex and bloody period of contact between Europeans and the Maoris in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and partly as the story of Christina Thompson’s marriage to a Maori man. As an American graduate student studying literature in Australia, Thompson traveled on holiday to New Zealand, where she met a Maori known as “Seven.” Their relationship was one of opposites: he was a tradesman, she an intellectual; he came from a background of rural poverty, she from one of middle-class privilege; he was a “native,” she descended directly from “colonizers.” Nevertheless, they shared a similar sense of adventure and a willingness to depart from the customs of their families and forge a life together on their own.

In this extraordinary book, which grows out of decades of research, Thompson explores the meaning of cross-cultural contact and the fascinating history of Europeans in the South Pacific, beginning with AbelTasman’s discovery of New Zealand in 1642 and James Cook’s famous circumnavigations of 1769—79. Transporting us back and forth in time and around the world, from Australia to Hawaii to tribal New Zealand and finally to a house in New England that has ghosts of its own, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All brings to life a lush variety of characters and settings. Yet at its core, it is the story of two people who, in making a life and a family together, bridge the gap between two worlds.
Among the early praise for the book:
"A charming blend of travel writing, cultural history, anthropology, and memoir."
--Andrea Barrett, The Voyage of the Narwhal

"Few readers will forget their first meeting with the author, with her Maori husband, and with the historical context that swirls around them. Thompson writes beautifully, and, even more remarkably, she surprises us on every page."
--Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

"In this unusual hybrid of history and memoir, Harvard Review editor Thompson examines the historical collisions between Westerners and Maoris through the lens of her marriage to a Maori man. As an American grad student in Australia, Thompson met her husband-to-be, known as “Seven,” while on vacation in New Zealand. She was petite, blonde and intellectual; he was large, dark and working-class. Yet within a short time, they had married and started a family. Their relationship, and her scholarship, took them back and forth across the Pacific, until they finally settled in her family's New England home outside Boston.

Thompson's deep knowledge of the history of Europeans in the Pacific allows her to trace the misunderstandings and stereotypes that have marked perceptions of Polynesians up to the present day. A sensitive observer and polished stylist, Thompson is never dully tendentious or dogmatic. The narrative moves smoothly by way of well-told anecdotes both personal and historical. At times, Thompson covers so much territory—there's a stray chapter about her family's interactions with Native Americans in Minnesota—that it can feel like she's trying to do too much, yet her prose never disappoints. Seven, the man at the center of the book, remains pleasingly opaque, as if Thompson is saying that we can never know completely even those we love best."
--Publishers Weekly

"Perceptive, endearing look at the often fraught contacts between Maoris and Westerners, both in history and in the personal life of Harvard Review editor Thompson.

Two decades ago, while on vacation from her graduate studies in literature of the Pacific at the University of Melbourne, the Boston-raised author met a Maori man in Kerikeri, New Zealand. She and Seven (so-named because he is the seventh of ten children) fell in love, married, had three children and lived all over the Pacific before moving in with her parents near Boston. Thompson mingles this personal story with a candid examination of persistent, troubling issues of race and stereotype in the history of the two cultures’ encounters. The first was in 1642, when Dutch captain Abel Janszoon Tasman named the New Zealand inlet where his ships lay anchored “Murderers’ Bay” after a deadly collision with the local Maoris. Subsequent accounts, including those by Cook and Darwin, underscored the indigenous tribes’ “bellicose” nature, yet the author points out that the Maoris’ warlike image was most likely a byproduct of Western contact. Similarly, the initial bewilderment and misunderstanding between the two cultures experienced when she and Seven first met could easily have marred their relationship. Thompson gently portrays her husband’s decidedly non-Western worldview: his resistance to planning for the future, his superstitiousness and his sense of communalism. It challenged her ingrained notions of class and race, and it also occasionally supported the Noble Savage stereotype. “What was funny about living with Seven,” she writes, “was the way those musty paradigms…would periodically spring to life.” She closes with a heartfelt letter to the couple’s three sons, each containing “a little bit of the conqueror and conquered,” asking them not to be sentimental about their dual ancestry since, in the end, their parents aren’t as different as they look.

Honest, forthright self-examination engenders a well-wrought sense of shared destiny."
--Kirkus Reviews
Read excerpts from the book, and learn more about the author and her work at Christina Thompson's website.

Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review. Her essays and articles have appeared in numerous journals, including American Scholar, the Journal of Pacific History, Australian Literary Studies, and in the 1999, 2000, and 2006 editions of Best Australian Essays.

The Page 99 Test: Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.

--Marshal Zeringue