“Taiki E”: The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera


My dad bought me a copy of The Whale Rider on my first trip to New Zealand, my fatherland, and said that it was one of those Kiwi books you just had to read. I remember watching the movie when I was twelve, but couldn’t recall much other than the longing for fatherly approval. To be honest, it wasn’t high on my to-be-read list and sat on my bookshelves for the last three years. In the midst of missing the beauty of Auckland, I picked it up and decided it was time to read it.

What I found was a beautiful, mesmerizing tale of family, heritage, and culture. The Whale Rider focuses on a tribe of Maori people in Whangara where the patriarch, Koro Apirana, is searching for a successor. Unfortunately, his son has a daughter who is then named after the male founder of their tribe, Kahutia Te Rangi. Koro spends most of Kahu’s life ignoring her and searching for someone who will insure the survival of their heritage in a 20th century world where indigenous people are pushed aside. The only way for Kahu to get his attention is to show him that what he was looking for was in front of him all along.

The Whale Rider is told from the perspective of Kahu’s uncle, Rawiri. As such, most of Kahu’s life is given in snapshots from her birth to toddler to adolescent. I found this perspective to be a refreshing, objective way to tell the story because Rawiri is able to understand where Kahu, the love-starved child, and Koro, the stubborn old man, are both coming from. He does spend a small portion of the book in Papua New Guinea and Australia, but, in a way, those are the places of his Maori rumspringa.

The book is rather straightforward, but it’s written in such a way that it can be read by children and adults. The most touching aspect is the stubborn persistence with which Kahu tries to get her grandfather to love her the way he should. The girl simply doesn’t give up and tries everything she can, and—as a reader—you just want to grab Koro Apirana’s shoulders and shake him. The character of Koro’s wife, Nanny Flowers, would be my favorite because she’s the type of take-no-nonsense old woman that I want to be. I mean, she chases her husband around the ocean trying to get him to come home in a furious boat-off.

I haven’t read too much of the magical realism genre, but I found that the blending of traditional Maori culture, legend, and reality was natural and not hard to believe. This wasn’t a fantasy or a paranormal adventure, this was just a small piece of magic in Whangara and I know that that kind of thing is possible—especially in New Zealand.

The novel isn’t that long and is a quick read as you speed through eight years in less than two hundred pages. I wish that there were more English and literature classes that taught books written by people other than stuffy Europeans and self-obsessed Americans, and if I were to teach a class like that The Whale Rider is definitely a book I’d put on the syllabus. There’s so much symbolism, characterization, and especially setting woven into one novel that it wouldn’t be hard to find multiple things to talk about.

The Whale Rider has reminded me what I already loved about New Zealand and made me find new things to love. It’s given me a small window into Maori culture and awoken a new hunger for Oceania literature. There isn’t enough of it in the world. If you love stories that blend reality with magic, determined female protagonists who won’t give up, and learning about a new culture then pick up The Whale Rider and dive into this beautiful book.

Let it be done.