Why wasn’t Dreamboat Dad by Alan Duff a best seller when it came out in 2008?
This book is good. Really good.
Maybe Dreamboat Dad flew under the radar because the author is a New Zealander. People from other countries often don’t know anything about Australia, and so know even less about New Zealand. I can tell you though, New Zealanders punch above their weight in a great many ways.
Alan Duff’s best known work, Once We Were Warriors, won a PEN award. I haven’t read Once We Were Warriors. My husband watched the movie and told me it was “not bad”, (strong praise from him), but said that I wouldn’t like it due to the violence. If I had realised the author of Dreamboat Dad was the same as Once We Were Warriors I might not have read it, because as my husband knows, depictions of violence cripple me with fear.
Anyway, regardless of my speculations regarding its sales, Dreamboat Dad is a wonderful book. It is the story of a boy, Mark, (known as Yank), who is growing up in a village near Rotorua in New Zealand. My husband and I visited this area a few years ago and it is truly beautiful. The air smells like sulphur (not so beautiful, but you get used to it) and there are geysers and hot springs and boiling mud pools in the middle of town and all around the area. I was particularly taken with the photos and paintings of the Pink and White Terraces, which were known as the Eighth Wonders of the World, before being destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1886. Google them.
I was also taken with how much better New Zealanders had managed settlement by Europeans than Australians had. The English sent convicts and soldiers to Australia and in the aftermath of European settlement, wiped out most of the Aboriginal people, leaving those who were left as third class citizens. By comparison in New Zealand, on the surface at least, Maori people and Europeans co-existed and in doing so created a much better future for everyone. I am aware that what I am saying here is probably quite superficial and that there are inequalities in New Zealand, but the inequalities in Australia for Aboriginal people at least, were and are far greater.
Okay, back to the book. Yank was born after his mother had an affair with an America soldier who was in New Zealand briefly during WW2. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except that Yank’s mother, Lena, was married at the time. Lena’s husband, Henry, came back from the war to find another man’s child living in his house.
Domestic violence is a theme of this story. Henry very often beat Lena, and other men in their village very often beat their wives too. The women downplay the violence, which is a part of their every day lives. The characters, men and women, know this behaviour is wrong, but they justify the violence as learned behaviour and continue behaving the way their own parents did.
Henry provides for Yank, but never speaks to him or acknowledges his presence in the household, which is not a happy one. Yank grows up thinking his father died in the war. This changes when Lena receives a letter from Jess, Yank’s father, which she shares with him. Yank writes back to Jess and they form a relationship. Yank believes his father is rich, and is a sort of John Wayne or Elvis Presley type of character.
Yank is musical and with the money Jess send, he buys records and a guitar. Eventually Yank sees a photo of his father and to his surprise and dismay learns that Jess is Negro. Yank struggles with his heritage due to the Negro people having been slaves, a concept he finds completely alien as a Maori. Yank eventually visits his father in Mississippi during the mid 1960s. As Yank has white skin and Jess is very black this puts both of them in danger many times from murderous white people. Yank’s understanding of how the Negro people had to live on their knees in order to survive grows, accepting all the while that understanding this way of life does not make it right.
The white people of Mississippi have as much to be ashamed of in their history as Australian people of English descent have, for the same reasons as I’ve commented on earlier. I won’t comment on more recent history as this book was set in the period between WW2 and the mid 1960s, and my blog is for the purpose of reviewing books rather than a platform to spout off my opinions. However, the whole purpose of art, is to make the viewer, reader or whoever think and respond, and Dreamboat Dad had me burning with indignation over a great many issues.
Dreamboat Dad had me feeling emotions other than anger too. I cried tears of joy during a happy event and had a few tears of sadness during others. I read the part where Yank is seduced by (or seduces) a friend’s mother several times, for both the pleasure of the romance and because the language used is so beautiful. I was also horribly afraid a great many times while reading this book, afraid of Lena being beaten by Henry, afraid that Yank’s best friend, Chud, would lose his way completely and afraid that Jess and Yank would be hurt or lynched, amongst a great many other fears.
Give Dreamboat Dad a whirl, it should be read by lots of people, not just me. I think it would make a good movie, too.