A Maori teen’s brutal experiences at boarding school provide an object lesson in how systems of power perpetuate themselves.
Te Arepa Santos is a rural boy, keen on hunting eels in a nearby river and fascinated by his grandfather Ra’s tales of how their intrepid ancestor Diego Santos assimilated into their tribe and saved them from annihilation by a rival tribe. When he wins a merit scholarship to prestigious Barwell’s Collegiate in Auckland, Te Arepa discovers that he is the only Maori student enrolled. He faces class snobbery and racism from every quarter and finds himself trying to erase his ethnic identity in his attempts to adjust to Barwell’s unyieldingly patrician, casually violent culture. Taking the nickname Devon, in tribute to the ship that brought Diego to New Zealand from Spain, is the first of many self-effacing tactical decisions he makes that eventually cost him dearly. Every relationship is transactional and every experience, a competition for a better position in the school’s hierarchy. This award-winning book has also been the object of censorship attempts in New Zealand due to its frank, often grim representations of violence, drug use, and fumbling teen sex. Though the prose is often plodding and the plotting littered with heavy exposition, Te Arepa/Devon is a deeply compelling character. The frequent Maori references are defined in footnotes.
Readers will either see themselves in Devon and his story or will reconsider their own roles in their schools’ social structures. (Fiction. 14-18)