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The Whale Rider, by Witi Ihimaera.

May 2, 2012

The Whale Rider, by Witi Ihimaera. Penguin Group New Zealand, Limited (2010), Paperback

A beautiful and delightful book grounded in Maori traditions and centering on a young girl who moves beyond other’s definition of who she is.

Like so many other books about island people, this is a book about a place. It opens with profoundly moving accounts of water and land, of whales and people. Regularly, the book returns to the world of the sea and of the whales transversing it. What the human characters say and do is always kept within this larger context. The need for humans to regain their unity with this larger world is the book’s underlying theme.

The human narrative focuses on a young girl, still in her pre-adolescent years. Her grandfather, the tribal chief, had counted on her being a boy who could inherit the power of tribal leadership. Even as a baby, the girl adored him and sought his love in return, but he resented the fact she was not the grandson he needed. Gradually she shows that she has unique abilities. In a crisis she acts to save the whales, the community, and her grandfather.

Although never explicitly addressed as such, this story is about gender and the restrictions and rejections which often result from rigidly following its dictates. Both the girl and her grandmother refuse to stay in what is defined as their space. Maori tradition is praised and revered in this book, but its gender restriction are challenged, or at least allowed to be transcended.

I didn’t know this book was considered a young adult book. I would certainly consider it a book for those the age of the grandparents as well as those the age of the girl. My daughter, a university professor in philosophy, recommended it to me and I am grateful.

I strongly recommend Whalerider as refreshing and empowering, as encouraging us to be flexible in defining people, and as a reminder of the need to hear and reconnect with the world around us.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 2, 2012 7:20 pm

    Great review of a book I’ve yet to read. I have seen the movie twice and loved it. I should read it to see how close the movie is to the book.

    BTW You’ve tagged this New Zealand but categorised it as Australia. You might want to change that.

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