When New Zealand appears in the global news, it’s usually to laud the tiny country’s progressive bona fides or celebrate its cultural quirks. One exception, however, was the controversial banning of Into the River. Last year, Ted Dawe’s YA novel about a gifted Maori boy’s misadventures at boarding school became the first book in 22 years to be completely removed from shelves.
Into the River originally came out in 2013, with little consternation from readers; although it tackles serious issues like racism, sexuality, and bullying with unflinching frankness, even the novel’s most maturecontent is hardly outside the norm of contemporary YA fiction. It wasn’t until the novel won what Dawe calls “the big prize,” the Supreme Margaret Mahy Book of the Year award, that the trouble started. A yearslong battle between Christian group Family First and a cadre of determined librarians eventually led to a judge issuing a temporary ban forbidding people from displaying or distributing the book. (It has since been returned to shelves.)
But when Dawe wrote the novel, he didn’t set out to cause a stir—he just wanted to answer some questions. In speaking to readers about his first novel, Thunder Road, Dawe found that they were less interested in the book’s narrator than in his enigmatic Maori friend, Devon. Why did he act the way he did? How did he become so twisted up? Devon’s story felt especially relevant because, Dawe says, “it’s lived out in New Zealand society, particularly in the newspapers, on a fairly daily basis: stories of kids falling into trouble, doing terrible things—quite decent kids—and people wonder why, where did they go wrong?” So Dawe decided to start from the beginning and trace Devon’s development from a bright Maori boy with a promising future to a troubled young man on the wrong side of the law.
This trajectory is one Dawe has some personal experience with. Though not Maori himself, he grew up in a predominantly Maori area of New Zealand and became intimately familiar with the issues they face. He also participated in his own form of rebellion: coming from a family of teachers, he decided he wanted nothing to do with education and refused to go to university. Nonetheless, he too ultimately became a teacher, though he made numerous attempts to escape the vocation. “It makes you believe in destiny, really,” he says. “You can’t escape what’s been plotted out for you.”
Despite his initial reluctance, Dawe came to embrace teaching, and working with students inspired him to start writing. He taught English at a boys boarding school (which was not unlike the one in Into the River) and found that he struggled to engage his students in literature. “They’d read for information, and they’d read things in the newspaper or on the internet, but they wouldn’t bury themselves into novels, and I felt sorry for them, because there’s something about reading a novel which no other form of reading gives you,” he explains. It didn’t help that most of the books he was teaching were from abroad. So to counteract their apathy, he started writing books that tackled the specific issues they were facing, not just as teenage boys, but as New Zealanders.
Dawe hopes American readers will appreciate the specific perspective of Into the River, but he offers a word of caution. “A sense of unease is a perfectly normal thing when reading this book,” he says. “It’s sort of messy and slippery and alive, and I congratulate people who make the effort to try.”
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor based in California.