“Whale Rider” is one of my absolute favorite movies and the book that it is based on is reported to be just as luminous. So I had high hopes for the book and I wasn’t disappointed. The Whale Rider was first published in New Zealand in 1987. Witi Ihimaera wrote it after his daughters complained that most of the heroes in the books they read were boys. Kahu, the young girl who is the inheritor of the whale rider legacy in Ihimaera’s fiction, is one of the strongest heroines I have read.
The story tracks the birth of a baby girl in the lineage of a Maori tribe living in New Zealand as times are inevitably changing and the old ways with them. Kahu is a great disappointment to her grandfather, Koro Apirana, the direct descendent of the first mythical whale rider and the leader of his people. She is named for the founder of the tribe, Kahutia Te Rangi, a name traditionally reserved for males in the lineage. Grandfather is horrified and grandmother, Nanny Flowers, dismisses him with her affectionate nickname “old Paka” and the stand-off hardens.
But Kahu pays no attention to her beloved Paka’s cold treatment and proceeds to eavesdrop on lessons to teach the boys of the tribe the Maori language and ceremonial customs, even as Koro shoos her away. She is a persistent baby, a stubborn toddler and a committed young girl but, as Koro despairs of finding an appropriate heir to the lineage to follow Kahu’s father, he refuses to consider her or to show any affection.
The text is interspersed with recountings of the early legends telling how the Maori people came to New Zealand and of their mystical relationship with the great whales. Kahu continues to confound her Paka’s efforts to marginalize her; she is first in her class in every subject, talented in performing traditional dances, a winning essayist and orator, relentlessly devoted to Koro and certain of her destiny.
When a terrible stranding of whales leaves hundreds of them dead on New Zealand beaches and a second stranding threatens the oldest herd, the people can’t persuade the bull whale to return to the sea. Kahu slips down to the beach and begins to speak to the whales.
Ihimaera’s book inspires the movie but events are not identical in the two story forms. The book allows for more interior development, a quieter understanding of the powerful forces at work and the gradual shift to understanding. They are both beautiful and compelling narratives that harpoon straight for the heart. The Whale Rider and its cinematic double celebrate the importance of tradition, the resilience of true heroines, the indissoluble bonds between humans and the rest of nature, and the inevitability of a predestined role in a still-viable ancient culture. Reading the book was time well-spent.
The Whale Rider Witi Ihimaera | Harcourt 2003