Kiwi Reads | A review of Chappy by Patricia Grace

One afternoon as I meandered to the grocery store, I stopped in a knick-knack shop to have a look. I’d recently moved into a new apartment in Auckland, and my room was woefully bare; I hoped to find some interesting but cheap items to make it less spartan, and to take the focus off the corners of dust and cobwebs that I was too lazy to swat down.

I bought a gilded picture frame, brown in some corners and with a scratched face. It had filigreed edges and danced on the line of gaudiness – perfect for my bleak room. I went home eager to insert a well-worn picture of me, my brother and my mom smiling at my high school graduation party that I’d kept in my backpack through months of exciting and sometimes lonely travel.

Once home, I opened the frame and slid the stock photo out. It was one of those classic 90s Anne Geddes affairs: all soft lighting and edges, a small child and dog in cutesy poses holding bouquets of flowers while standing in front of what I can only describe as an acid wash backdrop. I flicked the picture aside and it popped open to reveal neat, loping handwriting that completely covered both sides of what I now saw was a card, addressed ‘Dear Mum and Dad’.

Fascinated, I started reading and was immediately transported into pivotal time of Karina’s life. She was considering a new career; she wanted to move back home; she was likely going to end things with her partner Paul who ‘just cannot make a commitment.’ Cryptically she alluded, ‘I also think we’ve grown apart a little, but it’s no wonder why, with what we’ve been through.’

It was both intimate and common. I felt Karina’s thrill at the latest successes of her local soccer team and her underlying dissatisfaction with life. By the end I too itched for her transition, and found myself wondering what had become of her. I was struck at how easily I engaged in Karina’s ordinary life. I found myself similarly swept away by Patricia Grace’s latest novel, Chappy. In it, she evokes this concept of beauty in the mundane at a masterful level, using subtlety to create a relatable world, one with sincerity and quiet depth.

A woman in a read dress patterned with flowers and chin length brown hair looks down at a man with short black hair and a blue patterned shirt flowers. There is a background of blue sky, green grass, and mountains.
Book cover designed by Kiwi artist Keely O’Shannessy (http://www.kostheory.com/index.html). Image from http://www.penguin.co.nz

The story begins with a stowaway who flees Japan during WWI and is rescued by a Māori man and adopted into his family. Dubbed Chappy, the stowaway slowly learns to speak Te Reo (the Māori language), falls in love, and raises children in New Zealand. But fate has other plans for Chappy, and the advent of WWII triggers a series of events that upend his life. The book is narrated by Daniel, Chappy’s young and rootless grandson who goes to New Zealand and, in doing so, inadvertently instigates the retelling of his Māori, Japanese, and later Hawaiian and European family history through a series of recorded interviews with whānau storyteller Aki (who saved and named Chappy) and grandmother Oriwia, the formidable matriarch, business woman, and Chappy’s wife.

Though the story seems convoluted at first, Grace ensures that the lives of the family unfold in the same way yours or mine might; of the events that transpire, both small and larger-than-life moments are given the same pace and attention. In one passage, the whānau welcomes Aki back from an extended voyage overseas. Grace describes the muddy tracks and wide open fields that Aki drives through on the way to his family’s land; how excited kids run along with his taxi, and how fun and nourishing it is for Aki to eat and be reunited with his people.

In another, she depicts the bombing of Pearl Harbor; in confusion and pain, Aki jumps over board and swims to an atoll where he regroups and renters danger to rescue his fellow sailors. Bloody and dazed, he wanders in search of his wife and children. Though the first scene might appear insignificant and common in comparison to the second, Grace accords both equal weight in Aki’s life. Neither event defines Aki but they, alongside many others, depict his character. Through Chappy‘s moments of happiness, tragedy, love and devastation, perhaps the clearest message Grace delivers is that a life with dramatic elements does not a dramatic life create.

Grace employs the use of small digestible details that later grow in importance. Oriwia’s love of baking is borne as a simple passing curiosity, and is then cultivated throughout the story; through it we see Oriwia save her family and another’s from hunger and financial ruin as she swoops in to replace the German-born baker after he is jailed in the wake of New Zealand’s xenophobia during WWII.

Oriwia later uses her elaborate cakes as wedding presents, beautiful and thoughtful gifts that belie her disapproval of the unions, but nonetheless serve as begrudging tokens of acceptance. Eventually she develops from entrepreneur to businesswoman as she moves from casually selling baked goods to opening a successful tea shop that then becomes her legacy.

Grace deftly uses this breadcrumb tactic to show the racism that Māori faced in New Zealand. In Chappy, racism occurs like it does in normal life: mostly in indirect and casual ways, symptoms of discriminatory social structures. In one example, Aki approaches a white taxi driver to buy beer and whiskey for his welcome party since he is barred from entering the hotel that sells it. In another, Oriwia and her sister are ignored in a shop and then served reluctantly after white patrons who arrived after them have been attended.

Later, Oriwia burns with humiliation when told she and her sister can’t sit where they please in a segregated movie theater. These are small passages relayed as asides during larger scenes, meant not as focal points but rather honest depictions of ingrained, casual racism. The hard financial times Oriwia and Aki’s community face are directly tied to the fates of the white farmers who live nearby; when they have good times, Māori people get jobs and food for their children. When they don’t, Māori people are left with few options; farming for themselves proves impossible when banks won’t give them loans for land or feed.

Chappy resolves in satisfying yet Lion King-esque Full Circles: the first comes when Oriwia and Aki go to Hawai’i, from where Māori people are thought to have originated. In another, Aki, who was chosen by his elders to learn and spread the whānau history to the next generation, returns to New Zealand years after his mother has grieved and accepted his loss to the community. Though she doesn’t live to see it, Aki fulfills his obligation to his people by telling their story to Daniel. The final Full Circle comes when our once-adrift  narrator charts a course for himself to Japan, to learn more about his grandfather Chappy in his native country.

Aside from being a wonderfully told story that is easy to read, Chappy is an insight to Māori and New Zealand history, and in many ways functions like a historical novel. American writer Toni Morrison once said in response to a critical feedback that she only wrote about Black people:

“Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective, there are only black people. When I say “people,” that’s what I mean… [In many books] you [can] feel the address of the narrator over my shoulder talking to somebody else, talking to somebody white. I could tell because they were explaining things that they didn’t have to explain if they were talking to me.”

Grace espouses a similar philosophy in her work; she is a Māori person who writes about Māori people, and she doesn’t take pains to explain culture or behavior, nor translate Māori words for the non Māori reader. To me, the best way to learn about another culture is through the voices of the people who live it, as they live it. I digest the information they want to share, independently research the details they don’t care to explain, and in the end, get an understanding of their culture on their terms.

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