A young Jane Mander, depicted here in 1890, attended school in Kaiwaka and used the area as the setting for her most famous novel

A classic Kiwi story for the ages

by Andy Bryenton

A century ago, in 1920, a novel was published that would become a New Zealand classic, even though it found a more appreciative audience in Britain and the United States than it did with a morally critical audience at home.

It was Jane Mander’s masterpiece, The Story of a New Zealand River, and the river referred to was the one, which flows through modern-day Kaiwaka.

Mander herself attended school in Kaiwaka during the turn of the 20th century, and went on to not only work for the still-extant Northern Advocate newspaper but also the Dargaville North Auckland Times, where she was editor. She moved to New York in 1912 to study at Columbia University, and during her tenure as a nurse in the first world war, she wrote what has become known as a masterful women’s view of colonial life.

In the novel, fictional emigree Alice Roland travels to Pukekaroro (a real mountain, just north of Kaiwaka), leaving behind ‘civilised’ Britain and bringing all her worldly possessions into the kauri forest. The joys and hardships of pioneering life are painted unflinchingly in Mander’s prose, from her frosty reunion with her husband to the travails of raising children in the isolation of a small settlement. Themes of love, freedom of expression and women’s empowerment made the novel hard to accept for some puritanical reviewers of its time, but it is now widely acclaimed as not just a New Zealand classic but an icon of women’s literature worldwide.

In the book, the appearance of a piano, boated upriver after being transported from England, forms a metaphor for the futility of carrying old-world ‘baggage’ into the Kiwi bush. This image is thought to have been the inspiration for the acclaimed Jane Campion movie The Piano, which features similar themes of colonial angst, isolation and the hard life of women in early New Zealand. While Mander took some liberties with geography and population to impress upon the reader a sense of far-flung isolation, the places she talks about and the realistic quality she lends to her depiction of early Kaipara life make this a local tale, which has aged like a good wine.