Once Were Warriors

Houses as Cross-Cultural Symbols of Success and Failure in Duff's Once Were Warriors

Erica Dillon '99 (English 27, 1997)

[All citations from Ishiguro and Duff refer to the Vintage International edition.]

Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors opens with Beth Heke looking from her Pine Block house (half a house, really) towards the Trambert property, a "two-storey house through its surround of big old trees and its oh so secure greater surround of rolling green pastureland" (1), and cursing his good luck and her own bad luck. Like Kazuo Ishiguro, who focuses on Darlington Hall in The Remains of the Day, Duff positions the Trambert house as a focal point for the economic, social, and cultural hatred that several Maori characters feel for pakehas (whites) and for themselves as well. Beth, disgusted by Pine Block Maoris, laments the

restrictions they put on themselves. And not having dreams. Like him out back there, Trambert; of dreaming of one day owning a house like him, and a farm, Mr fuckin white Trambert with the big stately dwelling and endless green paddocks that backed onto the line of miserable state boxes erected on land he'd once owned but sold to them, the government, so they could house another lot of brown nobodies. To dream; of being like him, with acres and acres of land to feel under your feet. And wasn't as if the dream was to be a Trambert, a Mrs Trambert, no. Just to have a whole house with her own bit of land under her feet that she and Jake and their kids could call their own. (2)

Beth's overwhelming desire for land ironically points to the original conditions of Maori existence before white colonization, but the dream of a house appears a modern compromise of Maori and pakeha existence. Duff enables Beth to turn her life around only after she accepts, learns, and celebrates traditional Maori culture, rather than allowing her to inhabit a singularly pakeha realm.

The Trambert house functions as the standard by which Beth measures her dreams, her failures; her transformation involves approaching this symbol of success, though only within the confines of Pine Block. As Grace's suicide in front of the Trambert home suggests, crossing-over from Pine Block (Maori) squalor to private (white) economic success demands a transition that Duff deems impossible without sacrificing Maori culture and identity. The way that Duff configures the symbol of a landed, country house points directly to its precedent, the English country house, imagined over centuries in English literary and public discourses as the sign of moral integrity and the civilized use of wealth. Because the English country house implies a certain kind of civilization, i.e., the Anglo "sweet world" (1) Beth's transformation in relation to this house as a symbol of success requires her to gain success from within Pine Block, her Maori world. Although Duff advocates a success built from recognizing and learning Maori tradition, the imported symbol of the country house remains uninterrogated, and continues to serve as a sign of success across communities.

Both Beth and Jake Heke characterize Pine Block housing as "a mile-long picture of the same thing; all the same, just two-storey, side-by-side misery boxes, fuckin mirrors of each other" (1, 49); the mirror metaphor describes an absence of individuality (unlike Trambert's house), a community that exists as such only because Pine Blockers reflect each other's misery, and implies that the houses' exterior similarity reveals the similarly violated interiors, material and psychological. Furthermore, as council housing, Pine Block reflects the government's view of Maoris: an unidentifiable mass burden deserving unidentifiable mass housing. Grace applies the appearance of the Two Lakes courtroom to her speculations about the Trambert house ("Who'd believe such a place exists here in little ole Two Lakes? Grace thinking this must be how the Trambert big house looks; or sort of." (26)), another reminder that the Trambert house belongs to a pakeha world that controls and decides the larger fate of Maoris. Duff neglects issues of white dominance in favor of promoting an example of individual and community Maori success based on Maori culture, rather than pakeha institutions (although the government discreetly influences all aspects of life in the novel).

Jake Heke reacts violently to the "other side of Two Lakes" (50), turning his desire for the pakeha lifestyle (and cars, specifically) into a fuel for his métier, fighting. "Jake Heke imagining em, the home-owners, safe and snug in their privately owned boxes with the cars they all seemed to be lovingly cleaning and polishing like it was some fuckin pet or favourite person, Jake was getting to fume more and more over the car-loving successful-appearing white maggot shits" (50). In the drive around Ainsbury Heights and his frequent expeditions to McClutchy's Bar ("his first home" (99)), Jake confronts signs of financial success with awe and jealousy, but represses the knowledge that one must work for them, directing his sense of failure into racial hatred. Yet, as Duff makes clear in the first chapter, Jake stopped working because he received almost as much money from the dole as he did working full-time; such a disparity in economic opportunities receives short shrift in the configurations of poverty and wealth in the rest of the novel, especially in relation to Beth's later success.

In the end, after Beth revives Pine Blockers' hope by teaching Maori culture, feeding and caring for unwanted neighborhood children, and orchestrating community projects, she achieves her dream: "And Beth watching from her bedroom window of her new house the pass-by of the Brown convoy. And she knew. She just knew. And so her heart ached too" (189). Even in the face of her success Beth realizes that, as a Brown Fist, her son Nig is doomed to die; clearly, her battle must continue while such situations destroy Pine Block children. Although Duff offers Beth as an example of the solution to Maori problems, larger economic and social situations, specifically white dominance of various avenues of power, seem to be left to the whites themselves to change. Beth moves up within the Pine Block economic structure, a very limited one to begin with, her victory primarily significant in that community.

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Last Modified: 15 March, 2002