The Whale Rider tells the story of Kahu, a young girl growing up with her extended Maori family in coastal, small-town New Zealand in the 1980s. We know it's the 1980s because of references to the protests at the controversial Springbok Rugby tour of New Zealand in 1981, and the French nuclear testing at Muroroa Atoll in the Pacific. Whiti Ihimaera creates quite a broad political backdrop for his local story.
The story begins with the birth of a child. Kahu is the first child born into her generation. Since the time of the mythic ancestor, Kahutia Te Rangi, a high chief who travelled east from Hawaiki on the back of a whale, the first child born has always been a male. The leadership of the tribe is passed down this unbroken male line. Kahu's grandfather Koro Apirana, is the current leader, and is devastated at the birth of a girl.
I really enjoyed the story, but found the book got in the way of the story. I'm lucky enough to be a frequent visitor to New Zealand, and have been for the last 15 years. So I know a smattering of Maori words. But the sheer volume of Maori vocabulary made it very difficult for an average Pakeha reader to follow. There was a four page glossary in the back of my library edition. But sadly even this was inadequate. Some words just weren't there, sometimes important words like korero (meeting/discussion), and phrases were not included at all.
It's all very well now in 2011 with our Google world to work out what this phrase means. This would have been impossible for me when the book was released in 1987, and I think would have severely curtailed the reading pleasure to be found within its pages. Luckily for us there was an exhibition in Christchurch in 2001 at the Christchurch Arts Centre (now sadly closed until further notice after the devastating earthquake last week) called Haumi e, hui e, taiki e. And they give a lovely explanation of it: