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Kapiti Coast author Tina Makereti achieves this in Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, her debut novel.
At the book's core is the yearning to understand and identify with contrasting, conflicting heritage. In this case key characters struggle with their allegiance to Moriori, Pakeha and Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama ancestry.
Rekohu is the Moriori name for the Chatham Islands, and it is there the truths about Makereti's characters unfold.
Central to the story is the brutal invasion of Rekohu Moriori by Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama iwi in 1835.
Although the Moriori lived by a code of non-violence and passive resistance under the law of Nunuku, they were hacked to death or strung up on posts and left to die slowly, then eaten by the Taranaki invaders.
Makereti details the horror in explaining the turmoil of her characters - one of whom presents in the form of a slain Moriori, existing in spirit form to guide his descendants.
Those descendants carry the novel through the 1880s, when the child of a Moriori slave falls in love with the daughter of his master, the proud ariki of a Marlborough Sounds hapu.
They defy tradition and turn their back on whanau when they elope to Wellington, where they are free to be a couple but shackled by their skin colour.
Also befitting the time, British and European settlers begin to intertwine with Maori families, and decades later Pakeha descendants are left to piece together their past.
That sees characters in modern-day London return to New Zealand seeking answers, which they reluctantly receive on Rekohu.
Makereti keeps alive the plight and cultural beauty of Moriori, without completely vilifying Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama.
Nor does she sway the reader against early European settlers and their prejudice against the dark-skinned, instead illustrating truths of the time.
Her story is a balanced blend of New Zealand history and character-driven fiction, one which highlights questions pondered by New Zealanders today.
- Rosie Manins is chief reporter at Dunedin Television.