Calling the Gods
Written by Jack Lasenby
Auckland, New Zealand: HarperCollins, 304 pp.
The 2012 New Zealand Post Children’s Award for fiction went to Jack Lasenby for Calling the Gods. Selene (the Greek name for the goddess of the moon) is the female chosen by her village to call the whales—the community’s gods—home each spring. Selene has the traits of the Māori Paikea, or whale rider, who is able to communicate with whales and who sees whales as the heart of the community.
In their seaside community of Hornish, Larish and her family are jealous of Selene being chosen to call the whales and of Selene’s father’s power as chief. Because it is a prosperous community, outsiders come to trade iron and guns for fish and whale oil, and this is where difficulties begin. Selene is banished when Larish’s family accuses her of causing the difficulties. Even though Selene is sent off, the troubles do not end and Larish’s family takes a second step by betraying Selene’s father in his plan to rid themselves of outsiders. This betrayal results in the death of most of the community, including Selene’s parents and one of her brothers.
Selene returns following the devastation to try to save her remaining brothers and finds that her brothers and Larish and two of her siblings have survived. Although she knows what Larish and her family have done, Selene can’t leave them to die, so she takes them with her when she sails to the land of her ancestors to start a new settlement. Selene is a skilled leader and others who end up stranded nearby join them as the new community develops. The whales also venture to their new community when Selene calls them, which shows that the gods approve.
Their community flourishes and prospers under the mutual work of those who have joined, but Selene knows that the biggest threat to a community usually comes from within, not from without. She is aware of Larish’s continued discontent and jealousy. Indeed, Larish’s jealousy starts to fester and she ends up secretly poisoning two community members of whom she is jealous. Selene remembers her father’s ideals of justice and says that if they kill Larish in return, that is no better than what she has done, so the community decides to banish her to another island with supplies to build a new life. Larish’s jealousy drives her mad, so she devises a plan to return to the community and destroy it, which she does. The book ends with Selene leading those who have survived this second devastation so they can start again.
The story is mostly told through Selene, but her plight is also revealed through the stories told by each person as they die. Throughout the book, there are also brief interjections by Jim Rotherham, an older man living on the same land as Selene in the past/future. (Is Selene’s culture one that follows his or precedes his? That is one of the questions throughout the book). He is living in the reader’s present and is able to time shift into Selene’s world—they can’t see or hear him, but he can hear and see them. He is able to piece some events together from his observations, which also builds the story.
The sense of impending doom—knowing that Larish is capable of monstrous acts and waiting to see what she plans to do—pervades the book and the observations Jim interjects. He is an intruder on the scene, as are the readers. Why is Jim brought in? Is it to suggest that the society before Selene’s also fell to the hands of a greedy and jealous people? It is interesting that an older man’s voice interprets a young woman’s story, just as it is interesting that a male author writes this story of a female protagonist and antagonist.
Clearly Lasenby has superb knowledge of survival skills in the bush and on the sea. He understands the foods, the tools, and the methods used to survive—potentially due to his 10 years as a deer-culler in the Urewa bush. The landscape is critical—sea, islands, bush—the backdrop in many stories by New Zealand authors and particularly noticeable in New Zealand fantasy. The landscape and Lasenby’s excellent knowledge of survival living are critical to telling this story in a believable way and provide added depth.
After Larish poisons two people and is banished, the reader is positioned to believe that Selene has done a noble thing by not giving in to revenge, but also that she has protected her community and they are safe from the impending sense of danger that has shadowed the narrative. To have Selene face betrayal a third time at the hands of Larish (the first time being her banishment, the second the killing of community members, and now to return to destroy the community and kill more members) leaves the reader wondering what the author is trying to say about grace and forgiveness or about choosing alternatives to revenge. Indeed Selene persists and survives and starts again—she has survived where Larish has destroyed herself. There is a deeper message but it does not come in a neat, tidy or easy package.
This is a time warp telling—going between Selene’s time and Jim’s time. Ostensibly it is fantasy set in the future, but it reads like fantasy set in the past drawing on Māori themes and cultural understandings as key elements of the plot (though no culture is ever named for the people). At times, as a reader, I wondered if this was fantasy or survival literature, with the amount of attention and detail given to description of methods of survival. It could read like a good historical survival novel.
A wonderful pairing for this book would be Joy Cowley’s Hunter (a New Zealand Post Children’s Award Book of the Year as well as Junior Fiction Award book in 2006). Hunter is a story in which a male from 1805 who is surviving on the land as an escapee from captors is aware of a female stranded by a plane accident in 2005 on the same island beach but with much less knowledge of survival. He is able to think some ideas to her through the time warp so that she is able to keep herself and her brother alive until they are rescued. The hunter finds a way to escape his captors and survive and the female turns out to be his great, great, great granddaughter. The setting, survival knowledge and critical aspect of thinking/seeing/hearing across time but in the same place make these two an interesting match. While the structure and idea is much the same, the content of connection across time rather than disconnect across time is an interesting contrast.
Lasenby, who was a deer-culler, an editor, and a teacher before becoming a full time writer has many awards which attest to his writing ability. Starting with the Esther Glen Award in 1989 for The Mangrove Summer, he continued to receive awards and honors for many of his books including winning the New Zealand Post Children’s Award four times prior to winning in 2012 for Calling the Gods. Storylines and AIM Children’s Book Awards have honored him as well.
Kathy Meyer Reimer, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana