Savage, Farting Maoris and "The Wives of Henry Oades"

In book club, Maori, savages, The Wives of Henry Oades by Adrienne K.7 Comments

As I was scanning the pile of new releases at the local library, my eye caught a line on the back of a book called “The Wives of Henry Oades.” The paragraph ended with: “…the native Maori stage an uprising, kidnapping Margaret and her children.”

You knew that book was coming home with me.

Quick synopsis (taken from the back and online reviews, I didn’t get past page 40 as you’ll soon see): Book takes place in the late 1800’s. Husband gets a kick ass job in colonial New Zealand, moves wife and kids to Wellington. Maori come and kidnap wife and kids, burn down house, make them slaves. Husband thinks family is dead, eventually moves to San Fran, finds new wife, has more kids. 16 years later, old wife and (remaining) kids show up in SF. Hilarity ensues! Well, a court case for bigamy ensues. THE END.

Awesome plotline, yes? The best part is it’s based on a “true” story! well, the author thought it was true, until it got debunked as a load of bull. oops. More on that later.

So. The first 35 pages of the book are filled with the description of the journey over, on a boat, then establishing their life in NZ, ect. Then, out of nowhere, Henry (the patriarch) mentions at dinner that they publicly flogged a Maori boy in the square that day. And, oh eff, they found out he’s a royal. “There’s bound to be trouble.” dun dun duuuun.

And trouble there is. The Maori, out of the blue, decide that this random family, that had nothing to do with the flogging of the kid, but happen to be white and work for the governor, would be a great way to enact revenge. So they attack. Ready? Here’s the description of the kidnapping:

“The Maori filled the room, brandishing rifles and whips, a hideous tattooed four, with mouths yawning wide, tongues wagging obscenely” (pg 41)

“Margaret bent and scooped up Mary, in the next instant the baby was snatched from her arms and stuffed inside a flax sack. She fell on the sweating creature, clawing, drawing blood. He shoved her off…Margaret shrieked, searing her throat, “Please God! My baby!” (pg 41)

There’s plenty more. But note the vocab: “hideous”? “creature”? and the stereotypical weak white woman at the hands of a blood-thirsty savage crying “Please God! My baby!”? Really original.

So the Maori stuff the twin babies in sacks, kill the family dogs, literally hog-tie the neighbor’s son, light the house on fire, burning the neighbor woman to death, and then force Margaret and her two older kids to walk for like a bazillion miles. There are even graphic details of them “wetting” themselves. Thanks, for that.

Along the march, the Maori are only referred to as “savages,” or “brutes”. “The lead savage,” “A savage in the rear,” “the brute ahead turned and glared” (pg 45).

When they arrive at the Maori village, the response of the villagers is described as “rapturous barking and shouting” (pg 47, emphasis mine). Barking. like dogs.

And when I decided to stop reading was when Margaret is begging for water, and the old Maori woman who is “guarding” them farts in response. farts. (pg 48)

I flipped through the rest of the book, looking to see if anything changed later on. It doesn’t. Eventually the family escapes because they contract smallpox and the village throws them out so they don’t infect everyone.

To break up all that text, and before I delve into the analysis, here’s a picture of the author who wrote those passages:

Hi Johanna Moran. Thanks for contributing to the continuing stereotypes of Native people!

My analysis:

Initial thoughts: yes, this is historical fiction–so presumably, perhaps, this is the lens through which a colonial white woman would see the Indigenous people, since her society has trained her to see them as “savages” in need of “civilization,” or why else would it be okay that she and her family were there? That’s the whole argument for colonization.

But, my deepest issues are the one-sidedness of the portrayals of the Maori. The family is “enslaved” by the Maori for a long time, like years and years, yet even until the day they “escape,” Margaret never refers to them by name, never uses a positive adjective to describe the village, and continues to see their ways as completely backwards. There is absolutely no nuance in the portrayal. They are savage, through and through. The one act of compassion in the whole ordeal is when the Maori let her run away rather than be shot with the other small pox victims, but it is to their own benefit, because Margaret has been helping with births in the village, and they fear retribution from the gods in the form of harm to their babies.

It’s not like there wasn’t opportunity to provide an alternate view, the narration in the novel switches several times, from Margaret, to her husband, to the new wife in Berkeley, ect. Moran just chose not to include an additional perspective.

I would still be mad if this were based on the words of the actual Margaret Oades, who this supposedly happened to, but as I mentioned before, the story came out as a complete hoax. So this is the complete and total fabrication of the author, who was not bound by any “fact” in her descriptions and characters.

It wouldn’t have taken away from the story, in fact, I think it would have added a little depth. There’s no plot-related reason to portray the Indigenous people as solely savage, from what I could see anyway.

This book was published this year. In 2010. And it’s still deemed acceptable to have Little House on the Prairie-like  savages. “The Wives of Henry Oades” is touted as a great book club read, and I cringe at the thought of people sitting around discussing the ruthless Maori and how they effed everything up.

Maybe I’ll give these fictitious people the benefit of the doubt and picture them talking through the stereotypes and wondering if Moran could have done better. Perhaps they’ll use it as a teaching moment? Maybe?

But more than likely people will read the book without a second thought, and tuck those images of blood-thirsty baby-killing Indigenous Peoples away, to be pulled out next time they read an article, encounter an image, or hear about contemporary Native people. I don’t see many mainstream book-club novels with accurate, contemporary portrayals of Natives being published lately, so this is all they’ve got to work with.

So, for her horribly stereotypical “savages” I give Johanna Moran’s “The Wives of Henry Oades” two big ‘ol thumbs down.

  • Yuck. It sounds like her portrayals are similar to “The Diary of Mattie Spenser” by Sandra Dallas which I read recently (published 1998), this one set in late 1800s Colorado. Almost all descriptions of Natives are the same one-dimensional “savage” type. The only exception is a Native woman the main character’s friend marries–the main character seems to be slightly softening on her stance that this Native woman is a “filthy vermin infested savage” just about the time the other woman is killed off.
    Oh, and the major villain in the book is a mentally handicapped man, repeatedly referred to in the narrative as a retard and psycho, is brutally violent, again he’s “filthy” and “disgusting,” he rapes his mother on a regular basis and tries with any other woman he can get his hands on.
    Yet the reviews of this book on Amazon are endlessly positive, and no one else seemed to have a problem with the bigotry and stereotypes.

  • This is horrifying. I just read a fascinating book about the colonization of Tasmania that switched between many different aboriginal and colonizer POV that I thought was really well done, though I could very easily be missing something. It’s called English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. That book sounds sickening, though; I’m glad you didn’t try to slog through the whole thing. Portraying the colonized people as villains? That’s lazy and damaging writing.

  • KH

    Another excellent post! If you’re thinking of doing another book review in the near future, you might be interested in a recent biography of Olive Oatman, who was captured by a group of people who are believed to have been Yavapai in 1851 as her family was traveling via wagon to California (I think). Oatman later spent two years with the Mohave (and was given a blue facial tattoo during that time) before being somewhat forcibly returned to a nearby fort. The book is “The Blue Tattoo” by Margot Mifflin, and the representation of Oatman’s abduction, “captivity” (because it seems that she stayed as long as she did with the Mohave of her own will), and release was fairly nuanced and very interesting. The author also explores the popularity of “Captured by Natives!” narratives in the U.S. in particular. I’d love to know what you think about it!

  • No one ever thinks to write about the countless Native women kidnapped by white men here in California into (sexual) slavery post 1849, or the Natives forced into the mission system, or the children kidnapped to boarding school, or any number of these similar stories repeated across hemispheres and continents…

    The evidence doesn’t have to be fabricated, but I guess it wouldn’t fit the getting “ravaged by a savage” stereotype that seems to sell so well to white (female?) audiences…

    About the women who got a (CA) chin tattoo… very interesting, might have to read that book. It seems to me that she probably wanted it, I can’t see someone forcing a person to do it and it coming out the way it did. It takes quite a bit of time to have it done. Also seems like she didn’t want to leave the tribe after she was found as well, from what I know… THOSE kinds of narratives also don’t follow the stereotypes…

  • The book is well-reviewed on Amazon. That should probably change.

  • Ngā mihi atu ki a koe. I’m glad to hear that at least one copy of a book that portrays such a small-minded view of my people has gone to someone who can sympathise with the misrepresentation of an indigenous people.

  • BMT

    I think there is an intertwining of the “stolen by Indians” mythos and the forcible assimilation of people into white culture in the 19th century. I have an ancestress who was alleged to have been “kidnapped by Indians” as a child and later “rescued.” The significance of this became clear when my mother found the only photograph of her several years ago while researching family history and connecting with out-of-contact relatives.

    This woman had straight black hair and clearly non-european features, as well as skin that photographed as if it were darker than usual. The story was clearly used to explain her appearance. I only wish I knew more about this woman, but she was whitewashed away. We know almost nothing about her, thanks to racism.