Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2018

Once Were Warriors (1990), by Alan Duff

This review is unquestionably one of the hardest I’ve ever had to write.  Maori author Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (1990) won the PEN Best First Book Award, was runner-up in the Goodman Fielder Wattie Award, (the 1968-1993 forerunner to the Ockhams), and was made into an award-winning film in 1994.  But it is an uncompromisingly negative portrayal of dysfunctional Maori life, a book which comes in for both high praise and also trenchant criticism from some readers at Goodreads.  And since I’m not Maori, and have not yet been to New Zealand and the book depicts a situation now nearly thirty years ago, I feel hesitant about the risk of stereotyping and blaming and of perpetuating assumptions about gender and race.

The early chapters are really shocking.  Once Were Warriors pulls no punches about the self-inflicted misery and self-pity of the Maori people on Pine Block, a run-down, squalid government housing estate full of unemployed and unemployable no-hopers.

(You see what I mean?  I don’t like describing another culture in this way, but that’s the way the book is written).

Duff uses different voices in the Heke family to paint the picture.  Beth, a drinker herself, accepts horrific beatings from her drunken tough-guy husband because ‘she loves him’.  Warning: there is strong violence in the film trailer…

Jake has defined himself in a form of toxic masculinity*, one of a perverted ‘warrior’ class of men who use extreme violence on anyone who offends them.  And Jake is offended by anyone who is better off than he is, or is a ‘Chink’ or a Pakeha; or anyone who has a car; or who strays into his territory which includes the pub where he is the dominant male.  Or anyone who he thinks might be questioning his authority, and that often includes Beth and their children. Beth finds herself tensely watching his moods all the time, trying to forestall his violence against her, but chillingly, always accepting that it’s inevitable because he has such a short, erratic fuse and he has no self-restraint at all.  He is a truly contemptible man, but he’s still rendered with some complexity in Duff’s skilful portrayal.  Gradually a picture emerges of the background circumstances which contribute to his dysfunctional behaviour, but Duff never presents them as an excuse.

Beth, at least, has good intentions but she’s weak.  She drinks until she’s drunk and irresponsible, she gambles their limited money away, and she neglects her kids, taking a perverse pride in ‘having brought them up so well’ that they clean up the vomit and broken glass after yet another drunken night.  And at least her children aren’t sleeping in cars like so many of the other kids in the same situation.

But somehow 14 year-old Boogie has come to the attention of the Welfare – which is ironic considering that his nickname comes from him being shy and peaceable and ‘afraid of the Boogieman’.  In a heart-rending narration by his sister, Grace, we see that his parents get drunk on the day of the court case and only Grace is there to see him taken off to a boys’ home by a welfare worker called Bennett.  This is only one of many betrayals by these feckless parents who seem lost in a cycle of poverty, alcohol, violence and resentment.

Grace is only thirteen, but she is well aware of the gulf between her family and the Pakeha Tramberts nearby. She is quiet and thoughtful, and as she spies on this family from the edges of their immaculate property, she wonders why they have a good life and she does not.  What happens to Grace is truly horrific, but in a sordid book, it’s not the only sordid episode of female powerlessness.  Nig’s girlfriend Tania expresses her anger with him by going ‘on the block’, that is, by lying on a table and having his friends gang-bang her.  This sort of writing is not for the faint-hearted and I often wanted to turn away and stop reading.  I suspect that people from any culture which were represented in this way would take offence at the relentless portrayal of negative stereotypes.

Beth’s response to tragedy is another element that provokes anger for some readers. The authorial message is that strong women can change a community through self-help, Duff explicitly rejecting the excuse that there are structural factors and discrimination that might hamper her ambitions.  Eventually pushed to her limit, Beth restores her relationship with the Maori side of her family and together they foster a sense of pride in their heritage without blaming the Pakeha.  A Maori chief supports Beth’s efforts to clean up the community, and at the community meetings he brings along role models who include a successful Maori lawyer, doctor, surgeon, and an All Black.  He tells the community that this is what you can achieve :

Word going round all over Pine Block that something good was happening; you know, change.  That change was happening to some of the people living there.  And every Saturday, nine in the morning sharp, y’c’d see the crowd gathered at Number 27 Rimu, to listen to this high chief fulla, Te Tupaea, tellin the people of their history.  Our proud history.  Oh but that wasn’t all he was about neither: he told the people off, shouted and speeched atem to change their ways before the ways changed them; you know, in that funny poetic way he speaks.  Nor was Chief into blamin people, the Pakeha, the system, the anything for the obvious Maori problems; you know, our drop in standards just in general.  He didn’t care about no damn white people ta blame, no damn systems to be stacked against a people, he just toldem: Work! We work out way out.  Same way as we lazed ourselves into this mess. (p.191)

Duff seems to be saying that it’s time to accept that colonialisation has taken place and the Maori should ‘move on’ instead of wallowing in resentment and self-pity.  It’s easy to imagine the reaction to a book with this message even though the author is Maori himself and the product of a troubled childhood.

Today in the 21st century when the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wears a korowai (a Maori cloak gifted to her as a person of high prestige) which made her look more regal than the Queen it seems that there is a new mood in Pakeha-Maori relations in New Zealand.  It’s a maturity in the Indigenous relationship that we can only envy in Australia after our Prime Minister so crassly dismissed the Uluru Statement from the Heart.  But Duff’s biography at JRank suggests that Once Were Warriors is not a period piece but rather a deliberate divergence from traditional Maori values and attitudes:

Alan Duff is the enfant terrible of contemporary Maori writers. Like Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace, he focuses on the debilitating effect urban life has had on Maori. But the violent, drunken underworld of Once Were Warriors and One Night Out Stealing makes the cityscapes of Grace and Ihimaera look positively genteel.

Duff’s formula for resolving the problems of the urban Maori likewise contrasts very sharply with the emphasis on traditional communal values in most Maori writing. In his syndicated newspaper articles, his autobiography (Out of the Mist and Steam), and his book-length survey of Maoridom (Maori: The Crisis and the Challenge), he has stressed the need for Maori to embrace orthodox Western education and an ethic of self-knowledge and self-help. Putting into practice the dreams of Beth Heke (in the opening pages of Once Were Warriors) and Tekapo (in the closing pages of Both Sides of the Moon), Duff has personally instigated a successful campaign to get books into every underprivileged Maori household. Conversely, he is wont to express contempt for many aspects of traditional Maori culture—though there have been signs recently of some softening in his attitudes.

Alan Duff (b. 1950) is of Ngāti Rangitihi and Ngāti Tūwharetoa descent and was born and raised in Rotorua, New Zealand.  His recent personal history suggests that his optimistic portrayal of community rehabilitation is not easy to sustain.

*Update 1/6/19: In the light of this article about Meryl Streep’s objection to it, I’ve been thinking about my use of the term ‘toxic masculinity’ and I’ve decided not to use it in future.

Author: Alan Duff
Title: Once Were Warriors
Publisher: Tandem Press, 1990
ISBN: 9780908884001
Source: Personal copy, OpShopFind



  1. I have Maoris in my family so this is required reading/viewing. There are many Indigenous people in both NZ and Australia stuck in what seems like a permanent underclass of poverty and unemployment and I think only Indigenous writers can (and must) portray that. The situation in Once Were Warriors is strikingly similar to that in (Koori) Ruby Langford’s biography set about the same time.


    • Yes, and Paul Collis’s Dancing Home, which I reviewed earlier in the week is the same. But you know, I hate contributing to the relentless negativity. Look at the ABC stories online today: every one of them about dysfunctional Indigenous people… it might (repeat *might*) be an honest portrayal, but the cumulative effect is to overshadow completely the achievements of people who are not like that. I’m reading Growing Up Aboriginal edited by Anita Heiss, and they are stories from 50 people who are not like that. I must try to get that finished today… it’s been a busy week.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank-you for this review of a very distressing yet powerful story. I remember reading Once Were Warriors when it first came out. Not an easy read at all, but an important one for everyone.


    • Thank you, Marlish, I confess to some anxiety when writing it (and rewriting it umpty-zillion times!) so your words are reassuring:)


      • Oh, your review is excellent, Lisa.


  3. I haven’t read the book, Lisa, but I remember finding the film brutal, confronting viewing.


    • Hi Amanda, yes, I’ve seen clips and the trailer and they didn’t make me want to watch the film…


  4. Great review.


    • Thanks, Wayne, much appreciated:)


  5. […] after her ill-advised marriage, (reminding me uncomfortably of Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors,) this family is not dysfunctional.  Connie and her sister do well at school and get to university.  […]


  6. We have had the dvd on our shelves for years. I can’t remember when or how we got it (my husband is a Kiwi so he might have bought it). I’ve watched it once. I don’t think I could bring myself to read the book.


    • Some books really test us IMO


      • Yes, and I am quite brave with my reading, most of the time, but I’m not going to read this one 😐


        • I find that when I read something about abuse, or the Nazis or something like that, that I need to stop sometimes and do something to restore myself from the images in my mind. I go out in the garden and listen to the sound of children playing next door, or I take the dog for a walk, or I do some baking and fill the house with the simple aroma of scones. If I don’t do that the image stays with me all day.


          • That sounds like a good plan

            Liked by 1 person

  7. I saw the film at the cinema when it was first released and found it powerful and confronting but it is some of the best acting I have ever seen and it is worth watching for that alone. I’ve also read the book and it remains one of the most memorable novels I’ve ever read. Duff did a reading in London a few years ago that I attended and he was very frank and bullish about Maoris needing to save themselves because no one else was going to do it for them. If I remember correctly he wanted to show the cycle of abuse, violence etc in his writing so that it could be recognised and people could see how important it was to break that cycle. That was probably a quite radical idea in 1994.


    • Well, you know there’s the same issue in Australia – and probably other places as well wherever colonisation took place. I guess the thing is that it’s one thing for him to say that about his own people, and it’s another thing entirely for other people who are the beneficiaries of colonisation to say it.


  8. […] see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers […]


  9. […] Alan Duff’s Once There Were Warriors, this novel doesn’t shy away from depicting the dysfunctional aspects of Maori gang culture […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: