Completing the triumvirate of great New Zealand Children’s writers is Maurice Gee. While he has an amazing collection of work for children and young adults, Gee is as much a writer of adult fiction as he is a children’s writer.
His work for children is mostly in the area of science fiction or fantasy. “Under the Mountain” published 1978, is a much-loved novel set in Auckland with mud slugs living under the extinct volcanoes and plotting to take over the world. In 2004 Storylines presented Gee with the Gaelyn Gordon Award for “Under the Mountain”. This particular award is for a “Much loved” book and recognises a book that is held in high regard by readers of many generations. Gee said at the time “I’ve had it from bank tellers, airline clerks, a courier van driver, the man who came to water-blast moss off my garden path. They’re getting older. The book seems to get itself remembered by some bit of magic that I don’t understand. And I wonder if at some distant date – very distant, I hope – as my coffin slides into the hearse, the undertaker will be heard to murmur, ‘Maurice Gee? Ah yes, Under the Mountain.’ ” The book was made into a television series in 1981 and it was very popular with family audiences.
His other books for children include the “The half-men of O” trilogy The Halfmen of O (1982), The Priests of Ferris (1984) and Motherstone (1985) and the “Salt” trilogy Salt (2007), Gool (2008) and The Limping Man (2010). Both series have a science fiction fantasy style and encompass the themes of good versus evil and overcoming injustice.
Strangely enough, one of his books “The Fat Man” caused quite a furore amongst children’s writers and librarians. It won the AIM Children’s Book of the Year award, the AIM Junior Fiction Award and the Esther Glen Award in 1995. It has a very dark storyline, described as a psychological thriller in a Publishers’ Weekly review, it tells the story of a child, Colin Potter who is targetted by an adult Herbert Muskie and manipulated into helping him seek revenge for being tormented for being fat when he was a child. In this interview with Judith Holloway, Maurice Gee says, “I don’t quarrel with the people who say it’s a tough and violent story. I meant to use pity and terror ‑ which are a large part of fiction. But the story moves on through those things to some sort of satisfying resolution.” Margaret Mahy came to his defence by stating that children’s writers should explore “dark and complex things” and in truth, many children face bullying and other forms of brutality so helping them see a character come through such a terrible experience with some sense of compassion for others still intact is very helpful.
The “Plumb” trilogy is for me the best of his writing. Plumb (1978), Meg (1981) and Sole Survivor (1983). The books tell the story of first clergyman George Plumb and then his daughter and lastly his grandson. The characters are flawed and real. Andrew Johnston wrote that this series confirmed Gee’s place as one of New Zealand’s premier writers.
To sample some of his work here is a link to the short story “Waterfront” thanks to Victoria University and below is a beautiful animation of an excerpt from his novel “Going West”
Amanda Bond is a New Zealand ex-pat currently working as Teacher Librarian in an international school in Istanbul, Turkey. Her twitter handle is @kiwionthego