Review: Susan Buckland

They say you can’t tell a book by its cover. However, the faces of the men and women on the cover of Portraits of a District evoke the stories within. Stories of people who have invested their hopes and endeavours in the mountain ranges of New Zealand’s King Country.

They span the generations from the 19th century settlers to the present day. And like the textured layers of a canvas, they paint an evolving picture of rural life in Taumarunui and its surrounding districts.

Their stories tell of achievements and generosity towards their community, of fortitude, enterprise and all-out character. They are told by descendants, relatives or friends. Their accounts are uncontrived and are told with varying degrees of humour, pride and affection. In one or two instances they are eloquent.

The portraits progress through the book from the pioneering farmers, shearers, loggers, engineers and river and road transporters to doctors, nurses, shopkeepers, artists, politicians, top dressers, tourist operators, fashion designers and rock musicians. They are Maori and Pakeha. Together, their stories tell of a resourceful people with a true sense of belonging to the small town and surrounding communities they established far from New Zealand’s urban centres.

Their stories echo those of many other back country communities. But thanks to the initiative of the Rotary Club of Taumarunui, the diverse contributions of the people of the hilly Central North Island are now recorded in Portraits of a District. Such was the enthusiastic response to the Club’s invitation to the community to write about their own that the plan to include a maximum of 100 individual stories of no more than 250 words each was over shot in both cases.

However, the combined skills of third generation farmers Murray Craig, Noel Street, editor Tim Leahy, and editor, book designer and publisher Margaret Woodhouse distilled the essence of each of the 113 portraits.

The book is enhanced by several historic plates, opening with an arresting photo of Taitua of Taumaranui taken in 1885. The circa 1920s photo of John Burnand’s Chevrolet converted to run on railway tracks also sets the scene.

Susan Buckland is a travel journalist and writer.