ONCE WERE WARRIORS by Alan Duff

ONCE WERE WARRIORS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Upon its New Zealand publication in 1990, this controversial debut novel rocketed to the bestseller list. It's easy to understand why. Beth, a Maori mother, feels nothing but anger and disgust at her people, who accept second-class citizenship as a given. Relegated to government housing in an unnamed city, she lives just two vacant blocks away from whites whose homes offer tantalizing glimpses of a privileged existence she and her family will never have. As far as Beth is concerned, the Maoris would not have become impoverished lackeys with very little self-esteem had they stayed close to their warrior roots. Instead, the men's lives consist of beer, gangs, fights, and beating their wives. Beth receives a ``hiding'' for embarrassing her husband in front of his friends, her daughter is raped and commits suicide, her young son is carted off to juvenile hall, and his older brother dies in a gang fight, but Beth finds strength by summoning up her tribal heritage and teaching it to others. A lot to take in, but these are only the most active moments in a book whose main action is interior. Readers are treated to the mind's musings before and after events, the distinctive imagery of people locked in a present they're trying to forget. Duff (himself the son of a Maori mother and a white father) shows amazing facility with language in the intense, fast-paced, choppy internal monologues he gives his characters. Making skilled use of the repetitive nature of thought, he draws readers inside each voice in turn, using dialect (often including profanities) so naturally that it reads easily even for Americans. Duff shows courage in attacking the view that assimilation is the first step out of poverty, and he does so by spinning a compelling tale.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-8248-1593-9
Page count: 208pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1994