Into the RiverInto the River by Ted Dawe

I didn’t read Ted Dawe’s Into the River because of the recent controversy over the book’s ban in New Zealand. Well, yes I did, but I was going to read it anyway. Dawe’s books drew my attention a few years ago as Into the River seemed to touch on some themes similar to my first novel, Redeeming Brother Murrihy. Much more profoundly, the title of his earlier work, Thunder Road, carries an obvious allusion to the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name. Regardless, I was reminded of my interest when the news broke last month of the Film and Literature Board of Review‘s decision to ban the book in response to a complaint by the Family First organisation.

The involvement of Family First in the controversy also drew my interest. I used to listen to its founder, Bob McCoskrie, when he aired his morning radio show on Radio Rhema several years ago. I enjoyed listening to Bob, especially in his regular interviews with high profile New Zealand politicians and can say that I subscribed to many of his conservative viewpoints. With that in mind, I was intrigued and challenged by the debate around Into the River.

One thing we notice when these debates occur – everyone has an opinion on the matter while very few have actually read the book or taken the time to understand the factions involved. It troubled me to hear casual judgments when I discussed the topic with others. Inestimably more so, it troubled me to read comments from esteemed authors such as John Boyne who lambasted the Family First group after some rudimentary online research, issuing statements and comparisons like, “Somehow this rag-tag group of angry, ill-informed and frightened conservatives has been allowed to follow in the footsteps of Nazis and the Irish Catholic Church, an honours list to which no organisation should aspire.” You can read the rest of his diatribe here. If the free-speech faction insists their accusers should read the book and learn to think critically, then they should be willing to do the same. Conservative Christians are an easy target – and not all are as narrow as the images our stereotypes perpetuate.

The first clarification that needed to be made, and which only occurred in the small print under inflammatory headlines (pun intended) like “‘Will I be Burnt Next?'”, was that Family First were NOT hoping to have the book banned, but to have an age restriction placed on it. Without a closer reading of the facts, the surface-level arguments proliferated.

As I say, it was a challenge for me and one that I have taken up with great interest these past few weeks. I am a Christian, I have raised two children, I teach teenagers for a living and am part of an environment and of the belief that, yes, adults still do a have a role in our families, communities and society to decide the types of film and literature content to which our children should be exposed.

I am also a novelist and an advocate for free speech, with an understanding that the act of banning and restricting books has a nefarious history, one with severe political and societal ramifications. What to do then? Read the bloody book and address the topic in a blog post.

Into the River is an excellent book. In fact, it is one of those books that makes a writer think, “I wish I’d written that,” though I doubt very much I would have gone as far as Dawe.

It is the story of teenager Te Arepa Santos who, with the burden of his Maori community, especially that laid upon him by his grandfather Ra, and his exotic European ancestor’s legacy, leaves the East coast hamlet of Whareiti to attend a posh boarding school in Auckland. His story is a coming-of-age tale, filled with all sorts of dramas from in-house bullying, drug use and Springsteenesque street-racing to an actual drama production and, yes, first (and sadly awkward) sexual encounters.

The book does not start with these and is in fact extraordinarily “clean” for the first third of the book, beginning with an engrossing river encounter Te Arepa and his mates have with an enormous eel and continuing with an equally engrossing recount by Ra of the arrival and heroic activities of Te Arepa’s ancestor, Diego Santos.

The remainder of the book is set primarily at Barwell’s boarding school where Te Arepa encounters fairly familiar pressures of teen life along with some extraordinary and, to some reader’s assessments, perverse ones. Still, the tension Te Arepa feels as he tries to mould himself into an acceptable member of Barwell’s (including accepting a name change to “Devon”), is taut and extremely well drawn by Dawe.

It is easy to see why Into the River was deemed a worthy winner of the New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year in 2013. It is not a life-changer for me, but I can imagine its profound impact on a younger reader sorting out the pressures and confusion of teenage life. The book is explicit at times, but rarely exploiting this. Generally, the bits that have upset Family First and some others, blend realistically into the narrative, not lingering or distracting from the story or its themes. If the novel has a moral tone to it, it carries warnings about certain behaviours, but also couches these with some comfort. This is no fable of Aesop, however. Most good stories are amoral–showing us the experiences of their characters and leaving the assessment of their actions to the readers.

And it is this quality of fiction that makes the issues surrounding it even more challenging. The first book I remember reading as a pre-teen that contained explicit sexual content was a novel called (I think) Spiders. It was contraband shared around by school-mates, the sort of book we all skimmed for the good parts and which was certainly of dubious literary merit. Today, we have Fifty Shades of Grey (which I haven’t read) which has cast its spell on the world free from bans or restrictions, but without winning many literary awards either. How easy it is to dismiss books such as these, write them off as vessels for gratuitous sex scenes, titillating and scintillating without meritorious literariness.

And yet, Into the River comes under fire. Of course, it is aimed at children, so I can understand the concerns. According to Bob McCoskrie, the group’s aim was to not only apply to have an age restriction imposed, but to provoke a discussion “as to how do we protect our children from inappropriate and offensive material and what role should censorship take in protecting our children, and helping parents make an informed decision.” This sort of discussion I can go along with.

Ted Dawe has argued, and I agree with him, that children do not all develop at the same rate, that, “There isn’t a clear line that can be drawn that shows you are ready to tackle adult themes.” So, to put an age rating, let alone banning his book entirely, makes no sense. Further to that, and this is a stronger argument, Dawe states, “Novels are the last bastion of quiet, unmitigated introspection. It is just you, and the author’s words. I would like it to stay that way.”

Should we ban books? We do anyway, just as we ban films and video games from entering the country. The argument that “these days our kids have seen a lot worse” doesn’t wash, because there is no limit with that view. As a society, we have to have lines somewhere.

Should Into the River have been banned or labelled with an age restriction? I say no and for three reasons.

First, book bans and age restrictions don’t work. The forbidden fruit will continue to spread and, in fact, as a result of the controversy an American publisher is picking up Into the River. Ironically, more teenagers than ever will soon be reading Dawe’s work.

Secondly, it is too good a book and the offensive content is not gratuitous. The book has artistic and literary merit – we should always be loathe to disparage such things, regardless of our moral viewpoints.

And thirdly, Into the River is good for (some of) our kids, preferably with guidance, but even without. We parents want to control many aspects of our children’s lives, and that is right and good. Keep the pornographic movies out of our lounges and the violent video games away from our consoles. But be careful with books. The act of reading, interacting with stories and words within the privacy of one’s mind, is a transformational activity that is experiential but safely experimental with ample time and space for reflection. Our kids need more of this, not less and books like Into the River, while no doubt disturbing in parts, are actually designed by authors to help young readers understand more about themselves, their friends, and the ways they can navigate through this world, hopefully a lot less scathed than the characters themselves.

Tania Roxborogh, another fellow Christian, English teacher and author summarises things best of all the writers quoted in the Stuff.co.nz article I’ve referenced widely here. Among other insights, Tania says, “Into The River is a cautionary tale that resonates with the intended audience who are unlikely to speak to others of their painful experiences and fears. This is why we authors write stories: to provide readers with a chance to ‘test’ out scenarios familiar or foreign to our own and watch the characters respond – thus allowing recognition, validation, warning of actions and consequences.”

Read Into the River yourself. There’s no longer a ban. But also consider the importance of the censorship discussion. The discussion will not end, nor should it. Each new work of art that challenges our codes, our mores and our tastes will reinvigorate it so that we can all think critically about these things, disagree about these things and ultimately make our own mind up.

When I meet Bob McCoskrie, I’ll encourage him to continue provoking discussions that will enable informed choices and draw attention to books. When I meet Ted Dawe, I’ll congratulate him on his book and his courage and ask him more about our shared fondness for Bruce Springsteen.

Antony Millen is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand and the author of Redeeming Brother Murrihy, Te Kauhanga and The Chain.

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