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on 15 May 2003
For those of us lucky to have seen the movie adaptation we will have been seduced by its magical allure and simple charm. If this incites us into reading the novel then we are doubly fortunate for we can see at first hand where all the magic comes from. The film works so well because at its heart pulsates a captivating story which is hugely indebted to the imaginative brilliance of the author, Witi Ihimaera. The Whale Rider revolves around a seemingly simple storyline yet it is testament to the novelist"s creative powers that although it is rooted within a specific Maori context on the East coast of the North island, New Zealand, the themes that the novel raises can apply to any similiar situation around the world without losing any of their power.
Koro Apirana is the respected "rangatira" (old noble leader) of the tribe, the chief who is the standard-bearer, the glue that keeps his family and society intact, whose role is to hand down the "mana" (prestige, honour) from generation to generation so that tradition can be kept alive. He is fixed in the "old ways" wanting to instill in the younger generation a respect for history, tradition and ancestry. Koro is Ihimarea"s mouthpiece for the older generation. His sense of right and morality is crudely interrupted when his grand-daughter, Kahu, is born who in turn is the voice through which the young speaks.
On Kahu"s arrival in his family, Koro"s world is thrown upside down. Expecting a boy, so that the chieftainship can be seamlessly passed down from eldest son to eldest son the birth of a girl poses a huge problem in the mind of the chief. This is a masculine world where masculine values are praised and valued such as courage, bravery, strength and resilience. Kahu in his eye doesn"t fulfil these criteria and therefore the line has been broken. In Ihimaera"s skilful characterisation gender stereotypes are subtly subverted in Kahu"s increasing strength as the story unfolds and in Nanny Flower"s, Koro"s wife, fierce indpendent streak who is constantly threatening her husband with a divorce.
From this dramatic opening, Ihimaera weaves a magical story blending myth and reality in equal measure bringing to light questions such as the importance of history, the role of the family, the interaction of man with his environment, conflict between generations and how the past inextricably shapes the present.
In Maori folklore there is a proverb which translated says "At the same time as the spiral is going forward, it is going back". The weight that tradition carries is intrinsic but so is the respect that must be shown towards the future. Koro who embodies the "old ways" and Kahu his fresh-faced ebullient grand-daughter, can they tolerate, love and respect each other in equal measure?
Ihimaera writes with shimmering briliance blessed with a poetic eye for detail and imagery mirrored, perhaps, by his love of nature in all its elemental beauty. It is no coincidence that the chapters are divided into the four seasons for one of the central concepts of the novella is man"s affinity with the natural world. Can love be given and reciprocated with simplicity and integrity? Is man"s inhumanity to man reflected by man"s breach with nature? Whales are a crucial symbol throughout and when a group of them wilfully strand themselves on the beach ( the most poignant scene in the book and one which will bring tears to even the most jaded of readers) is this a portent of something problematic in the human world, the dying of the family ideal perhaps or the loss of communion between man and man, man and beast?
Read this novel and allow yourself to be dazzled. Ihimaera is a confident storyteller, who writes with humour and integrity, whose tale will appeal to children and adults alike. The magic of his writing and his descriptive powers which interweave the human and the natural, the real and the imagined, the concrete and the mythical will leave you spellbound and wash over you like the unrelenting crash of surf. "The Whale Rider" is largely an upbeat tale about love, striving for balance between old and new, tradition and modernity, man and nature, myth and reality.
Philip Larkin quipped that "man hands on misery to man". Ihimaera has a more optomistic take on man"s capacity for good. He illustrates that if we respect and tolerate, love and learn in equal measure and not become blind to love on our own doorstep, regardless of gender, sex or age, then the future for humanity is hopeful. "The Whale Rider" is a great little novel which will give the unaccustomed reader a wonderful insight into Maori life, yet convey how the specific can adapt to the universal and will invite the curious to delve into other works by this intelligent, sensitive and positive storyteller.
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on 21 January 2012
Written in 1987, THE WHALE RIDER is a deceptively short book. Only 120 pages long, it's a richly layered story dealing with several major social issues: family relationships, gender discrimination, generational differences, racial prejudice, loss of the cultural identity of indigenous tribes, ecological conservationism and modern man's disconnection from his spiritual self.

Kahu is a young Maori girl who, from the moment of her birth, had a deep connection with her great-grandfather Koro Apirana, a powerful Maori Chieftan. Custodian of his people's indigenous culture, Koro searches desperately for his successor: a boy who, for the good of all his people, will value and understand the ancient Maori traditions as much as Koro does. Kahu's uncle Rawiri, who narrates most of the story, and her great-grandmother Nanni Flowers, see in Kahu's spirit that which Koro seeks: the soul of the future Chieftan who will lead the Maoris of Whangara into the 21st century. But Kahu is a girl and, in Maori tradition, only men can perform the sacred traditions that keep the Maori people blessed of their gods and their ancestors.

From the delightfully subversive feminist Nanni Flowers to good guy Rawiri who, along with a diverse group of people tried desperately to save 200 beached whales (one of the several scenes in the book which had me sobbing out loud), to the serene, compassionate and otherworldly Kahu, the story is filled with remarkable characters. These include the Old Whale, an ancient sea-creature that has survived for centuries to ensure that Kahu meets her destiny of ensuring that the sacred Maori traditions shall live on into the new century.

The lyrical, almost magical, descriptions of the herd of whales' journeys through the depths of the great oceans contrast beautifully with Rawiri's simple, down-to-earth narrative. The boneless, weightless feel of the writing in the whale scenes recreate both a transcendent spiritual state and the sensation of swimming underwater. From the comical rendition of the constant bickering of Koro Apirana and his wife Nanni Flowers, to the well of emotion that has him spontaneously performing the haka to support Kahu at her school prize-giving, Rawiri's gentle perceptions of his extended Maori family reveal the deep bonds of love and culture holding them together. "Family," he says to his white friend Jeff, "is Family."

Some of the Maori terms were, at times, confusing and the edition I read did not have a glossary of Maori terms, which would have been useful.

This lack, however, did not detract from the lush splendour of THE WHALE RIDER, a beautiful story of hope and promise.
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on 8 May 2014
I really enjoyed this book - it is quirky, poetic, touching and unusual. It was interesting to read about the culture of a part of the world I know very little about. I also liked the themes of gender and family. I suspect that it may not be to everyone's taste (hence four stars and not five), but if you like a little bit of natural magic in your life expressed in a compelling read - this is for you.
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on 7 April 2010
Having watched the film I rushed to read this.
I was not disappointed.
It contains a riveting, magical and enlightning plot and language that is almost poetry.
The deep Moari culture is depicted with love and care.
A beautiful tale for children and adults alike!
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on 31 December 2015
I really liked this book. I'd seen the film and wanted to go to the original source and read the book. The film had changed the story slightly (as most film adaptations do) and I was a little concerned that this might spoil my enjoyment of the book as I loved the film. I needn't have worried - the book is beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the occasional poetic sections which added a new dimension to my understanding of the story. The book is incredibly well written and Witi Ihimaera is very economical with the words; each word has weight and so the book is relatively short. I read it over three sessions and enjoyed it tremendously.
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on 21 February 2013
A tale about Maori culture saving itself, and the world. The plot switches between what the whales are up to and the hunt for a new Maori chief in Whangara - a tribe that is descended from the legendary whale rider. Unfortunately the next in line for the title is a girl whose many gifts are completely missed by her great grandfather. The Whale Rider, written in 1987, offers fascinating insights into other people's lives - the way generations can mix well, and badly; the rights of passage we all make but seem so unique to us (schooling, running away, coming home). Best of all the book makes the case for equality, which is why I tried to persuade my 14 year old daughter to read it, but she found it too dull and domestic (clearly skipping the sections about the whales as they swim the oceans...). I will try and pass it to her again!

Readability: 7/10 - and easy to read too, you could finish it in one sitting.
Should you read it? Yes, it offers insights into Maori culture (without the misery endured in Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors, 1995). Apparently it's a great film too
Worth finding more Witi Ihimaera books? Yes. It seems incredible but he was the first Maori writer to publish a novel, Tangi, back in 1973. Ihimaera has worked as a diplomat and a uni lecturer - plus written collections of short stories and novels. He another look at New Zealand culture, one which should not be missed. See nicola [...]
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This is just a wonderful book, and so beautifully written. I have read it three times, including out loud to my 13 year old. Maori is included in the text, which for me made it all the more evocative.

I came to the book because I saw the film first. Whilst the film is different in places, they complement. well.

I'd say this is a must read!
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on 3 February 2016
Written by Witi Ihimaera the iconic Maori author. The story begins with the arrival of the first ancestor from Waiiki, the original Whale Rider. But a double narrative allows for the birth of Kahu who unknowingly challenges the traditional role of males within this society. Kahu is born and " we were all looking the other way" - she loves Koro and supported by Nanny Flowers eventually proves she is the leader her koro has been waiting long years for. This is a powerful story challenging the traditional place of women not only in Maori society, for the theme reaches beyond, into the worlds where all women are seen as fitting in lower in the social hierarchy. Kahu is the Whale Rider! A great read which gives one an insight into the cultural forces operating within the Maori world. The glossary of terms makes it at times a challenge for one unfamiliar with the idea of history and myth operating within this culture. However it is a rich and fruitful read.
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on 28 September 2011
Amazing story of how a young girl shows her family that she is ready to take on the training of a leader. She is part of a Maori tribe in New Zealand and has to cope with sceptical family members and tribal views on leadership. Made into a super film.
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on 13 February 2015
Gripping story, according to my husband (I haven't read it yet) who managed to read it on a train journey to London recently. Once started, he could not put the book down.
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