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Published on October 3rd, 2014 | by Booknotes Administrator

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Exploring Maurice Gee’s fiction for young readers

Hale cover smNew Zealand author Maurice Gee has a devoted following of both young and adult readers. Elizabeth Hale and other contributors explore his writing for children, including the Kiwi classic Under the Mountain, in a new collection of essays. We share an extract from Maurice Gee: A Literary Companion The Fiction for Young Readers and talk to Elizabeth Hale about Gee’s work. A second volume on Gee’s adult novels will be published by Otago University Press next year.

1. Maurice Gee’s first children’s book, Under the Mountain, was published in 1979. It has been in print for 35 years and is a well-deserved Kiwi classic. What to your mind are the key ingredients of its success?

I think Maurice Gee depicts the Auckland setting convincingly and excitingly for young readers. It’s our largest city and has an allure for that reason and for its spectacular setting. For those who are from Auckland, they get to see it through the eyes of visitors; those who don’t know it get to see it for the first time through Rachel and Theo. The menace of the many volcanoes of the city is very dramatic, and Gee captures it well. And he has two heroes, boy and girl twins, meaning that boys and girls will both be drawn to it. Then there are the villains, the Wilberforces, who are frightening and disgusting. The fantasy elements, such as visits to their under-city lairs, are convincing and exciting too.

2. In your essay ‘Representation and Responsibility’ in your recent book on Maurice Gee, you write that he takes his responsibilities as a writer for children seriously. How does he balance this with the need to tell a ripping good story?

I think the two work together well – an exciting story can have a strong moral ethic running through it. Gee pulls this off by exploring the topical issues of urban expansion and pollution through the actions of the evil aliens, the Wilberforces, who are shape-shifting worms from another planet intent upon devastating Earth so that it conforms to their preferred habitat. In fact, a strong ethical framework makes an exciting story better: if the Wilberforces were simply cardboard cut-out baddies, they wouldn’t be so memorable and frightening. The twins who are the heroes of the novel reflect upon the desire of all creatures to live and they feel remorse and worry about their own need to kill to survive. Gee’s not heavy-handed about it, though – you notice it a bit as you read it the first time, but rereadings reveal the moral depth of his work.

3. Maurice Gee is well regarded for both his children’s and adult novels. Are there common threads between the two?

I think it boils down to the moral insights of his work. He says of The Fat Man that it is a story in which children are told that bad things happen in the world and cannot be explained away by happy endings. He is careful in his work for young readers to bring the protagonist (and the reader) to a realisation of the facts of the world in a way that is oddly reassuring, however: it gives them tools with which to understand life a little more clearly. His adult novels do this even more. And Gee’s work for young readers and adult readers has a convincing New Zealand setting. He makes us look at ourselves and think hard about what we want our society to be.

4. What is your favourite Gee book and why?

I’m torn between The Fat Man and Under the Mountain. I think everyone who wants to know Gee’s work should read both. The Fat Man is such a brilliant evocation of the sugar bag years, it’s so cleverly and richly written. Indeed, I think it’s a book for adults as much as for children. And Under the Mountain is such good fun! The heroic twins, the wonderfully clear evocation of Auckland (the city and natural setting) and the giant evil alien worms, the Wilberforces, make for a wonderful read.  But I also love the recent Salt trilogy, which are really dark and rich and set in another world completely.

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An extract from ‘Representation and Responsibility’ by Elizabeth Hale, in Maurice Gee: A Literary Companion – The Fiction for Young Readers (Otago University Press, 2014)

In two of his best-known works, Under the Mountain and The Fat Man, Maurice Gee pursues what he perceives as a dual responsibility to young New Zealand readers: first, to represent their country in fiction, to show exciting action happening ‘at home’; and second, to confront serious moral and ethical issues within that setting. Gee’s work is profoundly moral, both in its investigation of moral dilemmas through the actions of young protagonists, and in its commitment to placing the action in a local setting. In these novels, representation and responsibility intertwine, accounting for some problematic aspects of writing for young readers, including how to represent the high cost of heroic action, and how to depict evil. To do so responsibly means balancing the need to take into account the reactions of young readers and their adult guardians with the demands of the narrative and the messages it conveys. Under the Mountain and The Fat Man have both had very positive receptions in New Zealand, but they have received some criticism. That criticism centres on the darker moments in each novel – the death of a popular character in Under the Mountain, and the uncompromising bleakness of The Fat Man. In replying to that criticism, Gee has referred to the ‘covenant’ that exists between author and reader, which is particularly important when writing for young readers. He eschews easy answers in his books: protagonists commit heroic acts, but acts that come at a personal cost that might best be characterised as the loss of innocence. Is it right to represent bleak, dark or tragic moments for young readers and, if so, how best to do it? Given that so many of his novels require protagonists to act as responsible representatives for the good of the community, it is small wonder that Gee takes his own responsibility as a writer seriously.

Under the Mountain and the price of being a hero

Under the Mountain smPublished in 1979, Under the Mountain was Maurice Gee’s first novel for children. It is a fantasy/adventure story about 11-year-old twins who save the world from destruction by marauding aliens.

Under the Mountain was well received by children and adults alike and has remained in print since its first appearance. Almost as soon as it was published, Television New Zealand commissioned South Pacific Pictures to adapt the novel for the screen. It was New Zealand’s most successful locally produced children’s television series of the 1980s, popular at home and selling well overseas. A further adaptation, this time for film, was produced in 2009, funded by the New Zealand Film Commission. In 2004, the book was awarded the Gaelyn Gordon Award for a Much-loved Book by the Storylines Children’s Literature Foundation. This award ‘honours a book by a New Zealand author that has proved itself a long-standing favourite with New Zealand children.’ On accepting the award, Gee remarked that Under the Mountain ‘seems to get itself remembered by some bit of magic that I don’t understand’.[1]

One ‘bit of magic’ comes from Gee’s skilful exploitation of Auckland’s dramatic geography. He describes how, on casting about for a setting that would give New Zealand children ‘an “our story” feeling’, he was inspired by the sight of Mount Eden:

What better than Auckland’s volcanic cones? It was seeing Mt Eden looming in the misty rain one morning that really got it started. Everything, monsters and all, followed from that … I wanted settings New Zealand children would recognise, with New Zealand the most important place in the world, as it is for the children who live here. [2]

It seems to have been an inspired choice: Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, possesses a dramatic geography, with a spectacular harbour and several extinct or dormant volcanoes – a fitting backdrop for exciting fantasy/adventure action. Gee’s depiction of the city is carefully – and explicitly – realistic. Early in the novel the twins marvel at a panoramic view of Auckland, the sweep of the harbour bridge, the glittering towers of downtown, and the looming volcanoes, Mount Eden and Rangitoto; and the dénouement of the novel takes place during a chase sequence around those same locations. In contrast to the spectacle offered by the city’s dramatic geography, the suburban sections of the novel provide a sense of everyday New Zealand life as the twins walk down the streets of  Takapuna, visit the local library, and take in the different architectural styles of the houses.

The ‘our story’ aspect of Under the Mountain is surely part of what appealed to the TVNZ producers who commissioned the six-part series in 1981. Under the Mountain aired on TV One on Sunday nights at 7.30, in peak family time, and was a nationwide hit. The series deliberately drew on this sense of ‘our story’: most scenes were shot on location in Auckland – Takapuna, Rangitoto and Mount Eden; and popular entertainers such as Ray Woolf and Billy T. James appeared in cameo comic roles. This use of familiar locations and TV personalities emphasised the representative and recognisable elements of the novel and gave viewers a sense of inclusion. Further, the show was a wholly local production: a casting search in Auckland schools found local children to play the protagonists Theo and Rachel. This sense of representation and participation is part of what makes Under the Mountain resonate still, especially with readers and viewers, who remember its initial screening. [3]

Representation does not mean mere celebration, however. Gee’s depiction of Auckland and its inhabitants may appear neutral at first. But in a subtle critique of urban expansion and capitalism, the Auckland of Under the Mountain is a spreading urban space, contrasted with the peace of the country (where the twins come from); and the lifestyle choices of city dwellers are decadent or tasteless. Gee’s critique plays out more starkly in the main story. The evil Wilberforces, last of the ‘People of the mud, who conquer and multiply’, are intent on colonising Earth and destroying its ecosystem in order to create their own ideal habitat; their totalitarian focus and greed is a clear allegory for the destructive nature of human urban expansion. Even the Wilberforces’ earthly name – ‘will’ plus ‘force’ – indicates the drive towards total power, and the name of their species, ‘people of the mud, who conquer and multiply’, points to their drive towards a chilling ecological devastation. Gee pulls out all the stops in his depiction of these unpleasant creatures, who shapeshift into human form in order to move about the city undetected. As humans, they are a grim family of undertakers who live in a decayed and lonely house by Lake Pupuke in the centre of Takapuna; in their natural state, they are large slug-like creatures who leave a trail of dry grey slime and kill whatever they touch. Their appearance reminds Theo of German helmets (another reference to totalitarianism). Gee’s critique of human (or non-human) morality ranges from the subtle to the not-so-subtle: his use of unpleasant and gothic imagery ensures that the Wilberforces are immediately recognisable as being evil.

Rachel and Theo are needed to represent humanity and conquer the evil aliens. They are chosen for the task by Mr Jones, the last representative of the ‘People who understand’, a ‘good’ race of aliens who have used telepathy and telekinetic forces to fight the Wilberforces throughout the universe and to drive the last survivors to our world and to the volcanic caverns beneath Auckland. To defeat the Wilberforces, Mr Jones needs twins with telepathic abilities to wield the two magic weapon-stones designed by his race. The two middle chapters of the book show Mr Jones explaining to the twins why they must destroy the Wilberforces, and training them to develop their telepathic powers and learn to use the stones.

It is in the twins’ differing responses to their heroic obligations that the richness of Under the Mountain becomes apparent. Rachel, the humanist, who easily accesses her telepathic powers, questions the need to kill the Wilberforces; because they are the last of their race she fears she will be committing genocide. Mr Jones reminds her that the Wilberforces themselves will destroy everyone on Earth, and she agrees to his request. However, she continues to feel profound regret and grief for the Wilberforces, even up to the moment when she activates her weapon by hurling it into the crater of Rangitoto and uttering a ritual cry of destruction. In contrast Theo, the scientifically minded twin, initially accepts the necessity of killing the Wilberforces but has difficulty suspending disbelief long enough to use his telepathic powers properly. Theo drops his weapon at a crucial moment, critically weakening his power over it. When he hurls it into the crater of Mount Eden, it causes the Wilberforce worms to explode instead of disintegrating, destroying swathes of the city. Though the threat to Earth is averted, it has come at a heavy cost for the city – and for Rachel and Theo. The novel ends on a bleak note: their aunt and uncle may be dead or injured; their cousin Ricky is certainly dead, and the city will suffer greatly (though total annihilation has been avoided). The note of melancholy, so striking in all of Maurice Gee’s books for young readers and present throughout Under the Mountain, sounds keenly in this conclusion.

The twins succeed in defeating evil – that is part of the contract of a fantasy/adventure novel of this type – but at a heavy cost. This cost reveals some of the ambivalences about writing for young readers that run through Gee’s work. The death of the twins’ older cousin Ricky is a case in point. When the twins arrive in Auckland to stay with Ricky and his parents, he meets them at the train station and drives them home through the city. Not quite an adult, not quite a child, Ricky represents city glamour, in contrast to the children from the country, and crucially he possesses his own transport. He helps the twins with their mission by driving them around the city in his buggy or across the harbour in the family speedboat to locations where key moments in the action happen. In the endgame of the novel, Ricky is killed while acting as a decoy to distract the Wilberforces’ attentions from the twins. He is killed offstage in the novel, and the narrative remains with the twins, who learn of his death from Mr Jones. (In the television adaptation, Ricky is killed by the Wilberforces onscreen, just before the commercial break in the final episode: the camera lingers on his lifeless body floating in the harbour, as the words ‘end of first part’ roll up the screen. Ricky’s death was thus positioned to have maximum impact on viewers of the television series.) Helper figures regularly die in stories requiring heroic action; their deaths indicate the seriousness and scope of the evil that the hero is fighting against. Indeed, the death of an individualised character has more effect in reinforcing the scale of a battle than does wholesale destruction. Nevertheless, Ricky’s death had an impact on readers, and Gee has indicated that he regularly receives letters protesting Ricky’s death.

When Gee talks about his writing for children, as he does periodically in interviews and speeches, he often justifies or critiques elements of his books. He has been haunted by a remark he made about writing for children – ‘a horizontal, straight-line sort of storytelling, nice and simple’ – and he seems to be similarly haunted by his decision to kill Ricky in Under the Mountain. [4] In a 1995 interview, he explains the decision:

It seems to me that in so much children’s literature the children go through terrifying adventures; they face great danger, they are heroic; they do all these things and come out the other end victorious. There is no price paid. No consequences. And life’s not like that. [5]

Gee’s intention here appears to transcend the merely practical elements identified above. For him, Ricky’s death is more than a narrative trick to underscore the challenge and evil posed by the Wilberforces; it makes a strong moral point that life is hard and battles are not easily won, even for the greatest hero. Even so, some years after writing the novel, Gee indicated that he felt he had played a cheap trick on his young readers:

It had seemed to me, on no good evidence – because I wasn’t widely read in children’s literature – that the children in adventure and fantasy stories win their victories too easily. They go through dreadful danger, emerge unscathed and unchanged, and presumably get on with their lives. I wanted to say that there’s a price to pay – and the price in Under the Mountain is the death of Ricky, a likeable teenage boy. I’ve had many letters about the book over the years and time and again I find the children saying, Why does Ricky have to die? There’s no answer except that the author decided it was lesson time. I’d overlooked completely that many children would identify with Ricky. I know now that you can’t have a lesson as hard as his death suddenly appear in stories that proceed on a different set of assumptions – that’s to say, the fantasy/adventure set of assumptions. It’s a breaking of the covenant that exists between writer and reader. If I were writing Under the Mountain today I’d save Ricky. [6]

In admitting that he underestimated his readers’ identification with Ricky, and the assumptions underlying the fantasy/adventure genre, Gee indicates that he now sees Ricky’s death as proceeding from outside of the demands of the story, and as being an unnecessary and intrusive authorial imposition on his readers. Ricky’s death, in this formulation, does not proceed organically from the action. In the novel, the brusque, almost offhand way in which the narrative treats Ricky’s death (reported in a speech, and dealt with in less than a page) undermines its proper effect: his death is important only for the effect it has on Theo’s later actions. This may be what Gee regrets. The television series corrects this somewhat by placing his death before a commercial break and by lingering on his final moments, paying more honour to the character.

Yet Ricky’s death, and Rachel and Mr Jones’ immediate grieving for him, does serve an important moral purpose (as Claudia Marquis observes in her chapter in this book). Until that point, Theo has unquestioningly accepted the need to kill the Wilberforces. Losing Ricky means that he suddenly understands the meaning of death and, therefore, the meaning of killing – which complicates his ability to do it properly. On the one hand, it makes him angry, and vengeful:

Anger drove him on – anger with Mr Jones for getting Ricky killed and anger with the Wilberforces for killing him. There was nothing to do about Mr Jones – he was on their side. But at least he could get back at the Wilberforces. He was going to turn them into dust.

On the other hand, Theo learns what death means. When he finally throws his weapon into the crater of Mount Eden, his death cry is weakened: ‘“We bring you the gift of …” he cried. And the final word was nearly lost. Why didn’t they say death when they meant it? “oblivion.” ’

The television series cannot make such swift changes between dialogue, narrative and internal reflection; indeed, it sacrifices the novel’s contemplative aspects in favour of a fast-paced and exciting story. In the television version, as he prepares to throw his weapon, Theo says, ‘This one’s for Ricky,’ explicitly linking his actions to vengeance. Neither he nor Rachel utters the death cry, ‘We bring you the gift of oblivion,’ and so the novel’s attempt to understand the meaning of death – or, rather, the meaning of dealing out death to those who deserve it – is lost. But if the TV series is less profound, it is also more optimistic. Ricky’s death is explicitly avenged, and the final episode closes with a view of the towers of downtown Auckland, still standing despite the cataclysmic eruption that has destroyed the Wilberforces. The blare of police and ambulance sirens, rather than indicating massive destruction, reassures viewers that systems are still in place and that the city is still intact. Interestingly, the makers of the 2009 film adaptation of Under the Mountain decided to keep Ricky alive. In doing so they showed that Ricky’s death is a vital part of the story; and the film, without it, is somewhat muted and conventional. Not only does it lack the contemplative qualities of the novel, more seriously, it lacks the awareness of heroic sacrifice that Ricky’s death provides. Though the film ends with a lavish set piece in which the various volcanoes of Auckland erupt for a period before the Wilberforces are conquered, the sense of a larger ethical framework is missing.

Theo’s anger is directed not only at the Wilberforces but at Mr Jones. After all, ‘The People who understand’ have driven the Wilberforces to Earth, and Mr Jones has used the twins as his weapons. It may be Mr Jones who has ‘got Ricky killed’, as much it is the Wilberforces who have done the killing. Who is the more ruthless – the greedy Wilberforces or the implacable Mr Jones? Whose desire is more questionable? The Wilberforces are only doing what comes naturally, building their own habitat, and they are not using children to do their work for them. Ultimately, of course, we recognise (as does Theo) that the side of good requires the sacrifice of the few for the sake of the many, and that Mr Jones is ‘on their side’, whereas the Wilberforces, who are not on their side, will willingly destroy the many for their own sake. Ricky’s death, then, not only provides a genuinely tragic note but is part of the moral debates flowing through Under the Mountain, through which Gee challenges some of the conventions of fantasy literature for young readers.

 

Notes

[1]  Maurice Gee, ‘Under the Mountain by Maurice Gee: the 2004 Gaelyn Gordon Award recipient’, The Inside Story, Yearbook 2004 (Auckland: Storylines: Children’s Literature Foundation of New Zealand, 2004), 31.
[2] Ibid., 30.
[3] Chris Bailey (director), Under the Mountain (Auckland: TVNZ, 1981); Jonathan King (director), Under the Mountain (Auckland: Index Films, Liberty Films, 2009).
[4] ‘Maurice Gee/Interview by Brian Boyd’, in Elizabeth Alley & Mark Williams (eds), In the Same Room: Conversations with New Zealand Writers (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1992).
[5] Judith Holloway, ‘A fat boy, a creek and a personal responsibility’, New Zealand Books 3, 5, August 1995, 22–24.
[6] Maurice Gee, ‘Creeks and kitchens: Margaret Mahy Lecture, 23 March 2002’, The Inside Story, Yearbook 2002 (Auckland: Storylines: Children’s Literature Foundation of New Zealand, 2003), 19.

Elizabeth Hale is Senior Lecturer in English and Writing at the University of New England, in Armidale, Australia, where she teaches children’s literature, media and creative writing. With Sarah Winters, she is co-editor of Marvellous Codes: The Fiction of Margaret Mahy (Victoria University Press, 2005). Elizabeth grew up in New Zealand, and studied English literature and Latin at the University of Otago before doing her MA and PhD at Brandeis University in the US.

Top banner photo of author Maurice Gee credit: Scooter

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