Island draws those providing and seeking salvation

Jessie Neilsen reviews Rotoroa, by Amy Head, published by Victoria University Press. 

Rotoroa is an island in the Hauraki Gulf, near Waiheke Island, now a nature reserve. For nearly 100 years the Salvation Army had leasehold of the land, establishing an alcohol treatment centre there for men. A similar centre operated on nearby Pakatoa Island for women.

Christchurch-based writer Amy Head has crafted her story around three characters in the 1950s with some kind of connection to Rotoroa, in a quiet yet vivid work. There is alcoholic Jim, an erstwhile patient on the island; Katherine, otherwise recognisable as writer and journalist Elsie Morton; and Lorna, a young mother and Salvation Army convert. Most of the narrative is given over to Lorna, and it is the strongest thread.

She opens the story cloistered in domesticity and about to be even more so. While a teenager, her family welcomes visiting Mormons into their home and lives. Soon they are involved in spreading the word of God, and Lorna embraces this lifestyle with aplomb. A well-meaning but easily-influenced young woman, her life unfortunately changes pace when she becomes an unmarried, single mother at the age of 15. Although adoption is the assumed option, her parents display much generosity and foresight in raising the baby themselves. Isaac is known as Lorna's little brother, and her mother and father present him as ``our little surprise''.

As Lorna turns increasingly to religion, work with the Salvation Army sees her venturing to Rotoroa. Here she works alongside others in taking devotional sessions, as well as helping with menial tasks. Jim is one of the more able patients. As well as a heavy drinker he is also a gambler, and has pawned some of his wife's beloved possessions. He is also not averse to the idea of sneaking off by boat to Pakatoa to drink parsnip wine with the women there.

Katherine is based on the historical figure of Elsie Morton, who was a journalist, travel writer, and a popular columnist for children. Her most well-known work though was Crusoes of Sunday Island, New Zealand's own real adventure story of the Bell family, who lived in the Kermadecs from the 1870s. While Rotoroa is tame in comparison, distinguishable as it is by its silence and extreme darkness, it is still a site of interest to her, and she also gifts copies of Crusoes to the island's library.

Rotoroa is a quiet yet affecting work. The characters are revealed piece by piece, and we slowly learn what has made them the way they are. Head presents her characters with empathy, detailing a physical and religious landscape perhaps hitherto unknown to many New Zealanders.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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