La Rochelle’s Road is historical fiction: a favourite form of light reading when the mood takes me. Tanya Moir is a New Zealand author who won the inaugural Margaret Mahy Award for Best Folio in 2008. This Margaret Mahy Award is an award somewhat like the Australian Vogel Award: the prize was an assessment by Random House Publishers, who then published La Rochelle’s Road, Moir’s first novel.
The story is set in remote hill country on the Banks Peninsula, where the Peterson family have arrived as settlers to take up pasture lands. The exact period isn’t specified but reference to a natural disaster places it in 1868. (Spoiler alert: click that link at your peril: it reveals a plot element).
The novel captures the hopes and disappointments of those who ventured across the seas to New Zealand, and how failure changes people who learn too late that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The Petersons were comfortably off in England, but Daniel, the father, yearns to be a landholder. His wife, Letitia, lets her devotion to him blind her to the risks they were taking when they sold everything and, in partnership with Fitzjohn (who is expecting a return on his capital), purchased an acreage on La Rochelle’s Road. It turns out to be wind-swept scrub.
Not only that, it’s a rough-and-ready place, where Daniel who has taught himself book-learning soon discovers that he must not only modify his expectations about the congenial life of a landowner, but also his behaviour. The family is in desperate need of an income while they clear the scrub by hand, but pub-talk soon scornfully tells Daniel that a gentlemanly job as a tutor or teacher or even as a clerk is not an option. At this time in its history New Zealand needs cheap labour, not white-collar workers or gentlemen, of which there is a surfeit. Daniel masks his thoughts and speech to take up back-breaking work clearing the land of others, while Letitia works dawn to dusk without the home help she is used to. Fragile of mind and body, she doesn’t cope well with that. Her husband becomes churlish.
The other settlers and townspeople make things no easier. This is no idealised portrait of a community struggling together: everyone is out for himself. Still recovering from the shock of discovering there are no fields in which to plant their seeds, Letitia makes the mistake of finding their neighbours kindly. Mrs Delacroix soon puts paid to that by charging two-and-sixpence for the ‘gift’ of some eggs and potatoes, and it doesn’t take them long to learn that this is well above the going rate. Daniel soon discovers that the going rate for labourers can be less if the locals have made assumptions about you, based on your bookshelves and your accent. The rough company includes a very creepy ex-convict, an old whaler, and an assortment of tough-talking blokes who are proud of the fact that education isn’t necessary in a place of self-made men. The women are more than pragmatic too. It’s a place where getting ahead by the sweat of your own brow is what counts: don’t look back, and don’t ask too many questions.
Daniel and Letitia’s only daughter, Hester, observes this descent into crass drudgery with the keen eyes of an adolescent. Her brother Robbie is only too pleased to be denied schooling, and he adapts readily to their lowly status. But Hester feels it keenly when a rare dance in the nearby town shows her that her dress is unfashionable and her chance of a good marriage has vanished along with their other dreams into the unyielding clay of La Rochelle’s Road. She takes some solace from reading a journal that she finds at their house. It is the journal of Étienne La Rochelle, the would-be explorer of their region who built their house.
An intricate Maori cosmology threads through the novel in the story of Hine, a Maori woman who lives nearby. Excerpts from Étienne’s journal (printed in an irritating florid font) reveal La Rochelle’s love across the colour bar, and guide Hester towards a conclusion that is right for her.
Moir brings the inhospitable environment alive with vivid descriptions of winds howling through gaps in the wall and Hester abandoning a sodden bed when the roof leaks. Canterbury weather sounds even more bleak than my childhood memories of an English winter!
Author: Tanya Moir
Title: La Rochelle’s Road
Publisher: Black Swan/Random House NZ, 2011.
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond. (It is, unfortunately, rather expensive. Even with a 23% discount at Fishpond, it was $AUD 30.86 (mercifully postage free) and is a whopping $39.99 in New Zealand. It appears to be no cheaper as an eBook from the publisher, which does a debut author no favours at all).
Fishpond: La Rochelle’s Road