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Icons of the West – Maurice Gee

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Maurice GeeThe year 2004 was a milestone year for prolific author Maurice Gee, for New Zealand literature and New Zealand film. It was the year when the two works of one Kiwi novelist, former Henderson lad, Maurice Gee, were made into films, Fracture and In My Father’s Den. It was also the year Auckland University bestowed an honorary doctorate, he won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary fiction and his novel, The Scornful Moon was runner-up in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

This is a high-water mark in New Zealand literature and one that was fittingly set by one of the first generation of New Zealand writers who came to international notice in the 1950’s and in many ways, laid the foundations on which today’s New Zealand literature stands.

While he was born in Whakatane, he was raised in Henderson and the town and Henderson Creek were formative influences. Henderson, as itself and in various disguises, was the setting for a number of his works. Gee’s father was a carpenter and with access to tools and know-how, Maurice and his brothers made boats for paddling round the creek and down to the harbour.

“I seem to have spent half of my boyhood there; a place of marvellous and terrible things,” he said later of the creek. “I got my first sight of death, there. I’d run home from the creek to the safety and security of the kitchen; one the place of safety and affection, the other the place of adventure, danger, excitement”, he told New Zealand Books in 1995.

The creek and his time at Henderson primary school, remained intensely vivid in his writing and his own adventures in the creek reappear as the adventures of his fictional characters.

After Avondale College he took a BA and followed it up with an MA in English in 1954. During this time also, he began writing short stories and with them, commenced his long and distinguished career as a very prolific author. In total he has penned 34 novels, three of which have been made into feature films, a collected works anthology and many short stories.

His short stories were published first in the New Zealand literary magazine, Landfall, but in 1960 (Mate) and 1961 (The Losers and Eleventh Holiday) were published to good reviews by the British anthology; New Authors, Short Story.

Encouraged by acceptance outside his homeland, after two years of school teaching and three of casual labour, he left to write and teach in the UK, helped by a grant from the New Zealand Literary Fund.

He had been a handy rugby player and his first novel, 1962’s “The Big Season”, centred on the characters and culture of a rugby club. It introduced dark themes he was to return to repeatedly; dysfunctional families, violence and death create highly charged stories that play out within and protest at, the very conservative society of mid-century New Zealand.

“The Big Season” was one of those works that challenged the cosseted, reined in and somewhat smug era of the pre 1960s, and it met guarded praise and outrage in equal measures. The New Zealand Herald found it “not always pleasant but certainly forceful and sincere”. The Southland Times decided that “Gee must have decided he would out-modernise the modernists in vulgarity”.

“A Special Flower” followed, then “In My Father’s Den” before he produced his masterpiece, “Plumb” which earned him the James Tait Black Memorial prize. “Plumb” became the first book in a trilogy completed by “Meg” and “Sole Survivor” which, between them, explored the lives of three generations of a New Zealand family. “Plumb” was one of those works of New Zealand literature, rare at the time, that received acclaim abroad as well as at home.

It was now that he turned to writing for children and young adults, producing such enduring classics such as “Under The Mountain”, “The Halfmen of O” trilogy , “The World Around The Corner”, “The Priests Of Ferris”, “Motherstone”, “The Fire Raiser” and “The Champion”. A number of these went on to be very successful TV series.

In these works, Gee takes his readers into worlds where the traditional battle between good and evil is played out in defeating creatures who would destroy all t
hat is beautiful in our world. In “Under the Mountain”, slug like creatures living under Auckland’s volcanoes want to turn this beautiful city into a wasteland. “The World Around the Corner” follows a similar theme but is based in another part of New Zealand.
Winning the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the 1998 Montana Awards was the beginning of an avalanche of recognition. He won the Margaret Mahy Medal, The Gaelyn Gordon Award and was shortlisted in the Montana Awards and the South Pacific and South East Asian Region Commonwealth Writers Prize. He was made a distinguished alumni of the University of Auckland which also awarded him an honorary Ph.D, honoured with the 2003 Arts Foundation Icon Award, and received Listener Television awards for the TV adaptation of “The Fire Raiser”.