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The reader

I  saw this small one on my way down to town at lunchtime. S/he (I couldn’t tell which) was tucked well away from the school playground, where the other children were zooming about. I couldn’t help thinking it looked like the kind of child who would be absorbed by the fiction of Joan de Hamel, who died last week.

From the NZSA newsletter: ‘Joan de Hamel was the award-winning writer of many wonderful books for children and teenagers. She was one of the first authors to write books specifically for teens that were set in New Zealand amongst our unique flora and fauna with X Marks the Spot in 1973. Take the Long Path won the Esther Glen Award in 1979 and her children’s picture book, Hemi’s Pet, won the A.W. Reed award in 1985. Her books brought the gift of adventure and of laughter to generations of young New Zealanders.

‘Joan will be remembered with great love and affection as a wonderful writer, supporter and friend, and as her family wrote in her death notice, “she died peacefully after a long and happy life.”  Joan’s cheerful and adventurous spirit and love of nature shines through in the plaque dedicated to her in the Dunedin Octagon Writer’s Walk which quotes her 1992 novel Hideaway: “What more could anyone want than their own land down to the shoreline and the whole Pacific Ocean as a boundary fence.”

At her memorial service in Dunedin, one of her sons read from an essay she wrote after her initial poor prognosis was delivered (eighteen years ago). She was busy with the beloved donkeys and goats that she bred, and commented (sorry, I can’t quote directly) about life’s relentless drama — concerned, if not with birth, then with death.

I’d visited her a couple of years ago, wanting to be sure that the donkeys in Island were written accurately enough. I reworked this scene with Joan’s advice in mind:

“Martha put on a warm jerkin and took her dinner up to the vegetable garden. She had time enough to swallow half a plateful of half-warm mutton and kidney pudding before the impending foal forced its mother into the lee of the macrocarpa hedge. Martha dropped her plate on the grass and knelt up on the stile. Over in the dark cove, Merry’s hoofs were planted wide, her head low and facing away. Across the paddock her mate made bewildered forays along the fenceline, shaking his head at the injustice of being kept at bay.

This is why we have the boiling of water and the tearing of sheets at human births, Martha thought. To give the poor father occupation. But a jenny was an independent creature and neither Martha nor Joseph would be welcome at Merry’s side just now.

Merry’s flanks heaved, and her head hung low.

Watching her struggle, Martha thought of Captain Swathi struggling up at the hospital, each of them towards an opposite end. Or were they so opposite? An end that might be a kind of beginning, a beginning that led to an end. Anyway, this one was a fine distraction from the ward – if only it didn’t look so painful.

Martha picked up her plate again but found that the white-nubbed sac she could see emerging from Merry spoiled the cooling cubes of kidney on her fork.

As Merry’s knees gave beneath her, Martha stood up on the stile, half-inclined to run and offer help, while Joseph planted his feet on the first rung of the gate.

A squalling bray from Joseph brought Rose hurrying from the kitchen, as the jenny delivered herself of a shiny package. At once Merry knelt to lick away the wrapping from a pale nose . . . a dark head . . . a neatly folded donkey.

Joseph threw himself at the gate and broke the latch. He clambered through the open wedge and the vegetable garden, the new peas and the tepee erected for the climbing beans. Martha caught him around the neck but now he was stock-still, shocked rigid at the sight of the wet head wobbling on its neck as Merry, half-risen but still on her knees, licked her baby clean.

Martha surprised herself by sobbing. She hid her face in Joseph’s shoulder, and prayed no one come to witness this scene of dishevelment and joy.”


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