Excerpts from the Book

From Chapter 1: Paihia

I got off the bus and walked out onto the pier. To my right an arm of the coastline reached out into the bay, enfolding a little harbor. A number of yachts and launches bobbed at anchor and I caught the faint, melodic clanking of wires hitting the aluminum masts. To my left and beyond was the open bay and the myriad islands like the hills of a drowned continent sticking up out of the sea. There were dozens of boats out on the water, their brightly-colored spinnakers bellied out in the breeze. But the air on shore was still and the sun hot in a cloudless sky.

In Australia I often used to stand on the beach and look out to sea and think about what it must have been like to see these places for the first time. It was a curious thought, since the view from where I stood was exactly the opposite of what those first Europeans saw. They, seeing land from sea, recorded it in gently undulating profiles, taking note of any distinctive formations that might prove useful to future navigators. To them it was a stretch of rocky coastline, miles of inscrutable grey-green bush, a series of possible landfalls, inlets and bays where one might get water, reefs and sandbars to avoid. To me, standing there with my back to the cliffs, it was a great reach of emptiness, a stretch of possibility, the gentle curve of the horizon at the edge of the sea.

From Chapter 2: Abominably Saucy

I have often thought of that night as a contact encounter. “Contact” is what we call it when two previously unacquainted groups meet for the very first time ... Historians and anthropologists tend to speak of a “contact period” or “contact zone,” meaning a time and space in which two groups of people come together, part, come together, part, and come together again in a strange, unsettled period of uncertainty, like a dance that none of the performers has had a chance to learn.

Because contact, whatever else it is, is a matter of confusion. One side may have technological superiority; the other maybe have numbers on its side. But when they first come together, there is, for a limited time, a kind of parity, the parity of incomprehension. Each side constructs hypotheses, tries to assess the other’s strength, to parse the other’s utterances, to deduce the other’s purpose and intent. Neither fully understands what’s happening and neither can say with confidence what's going on.

The absolute truth of this, and its applicability even to contemporary situations, was impressed upon me that evening after I left the Kerikeri pub. My bus to Auckland had been scheduled for ten o’clock, but somehow ten had come and gone and, before I knew it, the pub was closing and there I was with all my gear and no place to go. “You can come with us,” said Seven. And so I did.

From Chapter 3: Mangonui

I stayed in Mangonui for a week, camping with Seven in a shack by the sea with no running water, eating snapper that he caught with a hand line and cooked over a fire. When we needed more food we turned up at a house, his mother’s or sister’s or sister-in-law’s, about the time that someone might be making supper ... Occasionally Seven had things to do. One day his father sent him to shoot feral cats in the bush at the bottom of the embankment. Another time one of his brothers wanted him to go out in the boat. They left early and were gone all day, returning about sunset with half a dozen sugar sacks full of crayfish and abalone.

I spent much of this time sitting and watching the water ... Sometimes I went for walks, wandering up the road or into the bush beyond the houses. I liked the drone of the cicadas in the midday heat, and the crunch of the dry grass, and strange, pungent smell of something, an aromatic tree or shrub that I could never locate but that would suddenly surround me like some kind of enchantment and then vanish if I took another step. I got quieter and quieter as the days wore on, one hot, bright, summer day, after another, and I found myself talking less and less. One day I said to Seven, “You know, I might stop talking altogether if I stay here too long.” He just laughed and said nothing.

From Chapter 5: Present Perfect

Now, I myself am a rationalist. I have never believed in ghosts or extrasensory perception or that the earth etchings in the Peruvian desert were left there by beings from another world. And while, for the most part, I appreciated Seven’s open-mindedness, there were times when his willing to countenance outlandish explanations drove me quite mad. “How can I listen to you?” I would say. “You think that earth has been visited by aliens!” His response to these outbursts was so mild, however, that anyone observing us would have concluded that it was he who was the reasonable one.

Once, when we were having one of these conversations, I accused him of being superstitious.

“No, I’m not,” he said calmly.

“Yes you are. You believe in UFOs.”

“Are you going to tell me that there is no other intelligent life in the universe?”

“No,” I countered. “There probably is intelligent life somewhere in the universe. I just don’t think it’s been here. You watch those programs about unexplained phenomena. You get visited by the dead.”

“Not regularly,” he said.

From Chapter 13: Once Were Warriors

It is a “basic Pakeha [European] misunderstanding,” writes the philosopher John Patterson, “that deep down, Maori and Pakeha are very similar.” In fact, he argues, deep down, Maoris have very different ways of understanding the world ...

Maori values are tribal values: what is good for the group is good for the individual, whereas the reverse does not necessarily hold true. In the ideal Maori community, there is a sharing of both resources and obligations. Sacrifice is often demanded; loyalty is highly prized. Competitiveness—unless in sports—is generally discouraged, while greed and selfishness are openly despised. The result is a society in which everyone is cared for, but also one in which individual achievement is the exception rather than the norm. One consquence of this is that, from the Pakeha point of view, Maoris often look unambitious, while Pakehas, seen from the Maori perspective, look ruthless, isolated, and cold.

I had seen, firsthand, how this worked in Boston, where Seven’s lack of ambition struck my family as, well, odd.

“What does he want to do?” my father would ask me, meaning, what future did he envision, what plans did he have, what ladder did he see himself ascending?

“I don’t really know, Dad. I’m not sure he wants to do anything at all.”

I suppose this dynamic must have played itself out in reverse when it came to Seven’s family, and I sometimes wondered if they saw me as hopelessly self-absorbed and striving, dragging my family around the world in the pursuit of some crackpot career. But it didn’t help me one little bit to see both sides of the problem. When it came to Seven’s sister—or any of my own children, for that matter—I could never resist the imperatives of my own upbringing ... so long as they were living with me, I was going to make sure they went to school.