Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pākehā history

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A CREATIVE AND UNIQUE WAY TO VIEW THE HISTORY OF PĀKEHĀ NEW ZEALANDERS

Letters are time capsules, portals to other times and places. Rarely written in today’s world of instant communication, letters record domestic dramas and reflect great historical moments. They can be by turns gossipy and intimate, grandiose and business-like.

When acclaimed writer, film director and historian Peter Wells discovered a cache of family letters amongst his elderly mother’s effects, he found the means to retrace his family history. English born, the Northes were hard-working, entrepreneurial folk, swept out to New Zealand during the great nineteenth-century human diaspora from Britain. They settled in Napier, and their upwardly-mobile trajectory — from servant class to merchants and landowners — was not untypical. Individually, their stories are anything but.

Digging deep into their stories, examining letters from the past and writing a letter to the future, Wells recounts a rich and, at times, heartbreaking Pākehā family history. The Northes’ military origins caught them up in the New Zealand Wars, the Anglo-Boer war and World War One. They also lived through the Depression and the devastating Napier earthquake of 1931. There was army desertion, suicide, adultery, AIDS, secrets and lies. There was also success, prosperity and rising social status.

As well as sharing the stories of his ancestors, Wells records his own history, not least coming out to his parents via a letter from the UK when he was in his early twenties. Wells talks about his close relationship with his mother — a woman with her own secrets — the complexity of his feelings for his emotionally absent father and his hero worship of his adored older brother. Colourful and intriguing, Dear Oliver is tender, poignant, engaging and revealing, the work of one of this country’s finest writers.

Peter Wells recently came to national attention with the publication of ‘Hello Darkness,’ a series of moving Facebook posts/diary entries about finding himself in the cancer ward. These were latterly published on popular news website, The Spinoff.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Wells is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and a writer/ director in film. His fiction looks at a world of secrets, identity, subterfuge and illusion, frequently using the lens of a gay narrator. His first book, Dangerous Desires, won the Reed Fiction Award, the NZ Book Award, and PEN Best New Book in Prose in 1992. His memoir Long Loop Home won the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Biography, and he has won many awards for his work as a film director. He is co-founder of the Auckland Writers Festival. In 2006, Wells was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and film. His most recent histories examined William Colenso, a resident of Napier, and Kereopa Te Rau, the Pai Mārire follower who was hanged in Napier for murdering Reverend Carl Völkner. Dear Oliver brings to an end this Napier trilogy.

PUBLISHED BY MASSEY UNIVERSITY PRESS, 12 MARCH 2018, RRP $39.99

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