Pattrick returns to rugged early NZ

In her latest novel, Jenny Pattrick returns to the spirited woman who was introduced in her well-known debut, The Denniston Rose. 

Jenny Pattrick
Penguin/Black Swan


Jenny Pattrick's books have been highly acclaimed in New Zealand, and involve strong characters and rugged landscapes. Her first and best-known novel, The Denniston Rose, introduced us to the amazing engineering feat of the Denniston Incline at the West Coast coal mine, and to Rose, a spirited woman who also appears in Pattrick's latest, Leap of Faith.

Several families moved from coal mines to the harsh King Country to help complete the Main Trunk line from Wellington to Auckland, including the Makatote Viaduct, the highest at the time of completion, in time for the Parliamentary Special train on August 8, 1908.

As in another of Pattrick's books, Landings (which is set on the Whanganui River), there is a mix of the history of the place, and the lives of fictional characters.

Pattrick interweaves recollections from her own grandmother who lived in Ohakune at the time of the railway construction but then we are told that she and her family, the Camerons, are hypothetical. However, several factual people, including politicians, surveyors, engineers and business-owners are showcased throughout the book.

The result is an interesting historical account with murders, a romance and a dodgy preacher thrown in to pad out the story. Something for everyone, perhaps.

Pattrick is brilliant at depicting the daily toil, both for the women running households with limited resources, and for the men performing back-breaking work with few days off to meet sometimes unrealistic deadlines.

Difficult issues are explored, such as the temperance movement. Do the men need a wee tot each evening to take the edge off their situation, or does that lead to wife-beating? Men are suffering the effects of fighting in the Boer War, but they are never discussed, and the Anti-Asiatic League has a strong view against the Yellow Peril, but Maoris [sic] are accepted, if grudgingly by some, and a mixed marriage is celebrated by all.

The community is God-fearing, but doesn't take to the laying on of hands by the new preacher, Gabriel Locke, and question his past, his motives and his influence over Billy Cameron, a young impressionable worker, who is liked by all, but appears to exhibit a mental condition. Again, as a sign of the times, this is not dealt with as effectively as it might be today.

There are a couple of minor inconsistencies. Sarah Cameron struggles to keep her household fed and clothed, even though her husband and four children are all working; however, Rose can afford a full-time child-minder on only her teacher's income and her husband's construction manager's wage. Forest fires devastate several campsites, which are seemingly rebuilt in days.

Families are shown to simultaneously have nothing, and have everything they need, and there is an indomitable spirit fed by love, and the willingness to work hard and be a part of history.

A story to enjoy, alongside the incredible account of pioneers on the inhospitable Central Plateau.

Rachel Gurney is an avid Dunedin reader.

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