Witi Ihimaeraís The Whale Rider is one of those rare books that is so pure and so moving that it makes you believe anything is possible. Most specifically, it makes you believe that a book thatís basically about cultural rituals among the Maori people of New Zealand isnít only fascinating and entertaining, but accessible. Though the book features a tattooed whale and characters who seem to possess strange and unusual abilities, itís basically just about a family.
That family is lead by fearsome Maori chief Koro Apirana and his salty but loving wife, Nanny Flowers, and includes their grandsons Porourangi and Rawiri, the storyís narrator. As the story opens, Porourangi, the older of the two, has just had a daughter, inflaming his grandfather. You see, power in the tribe handed down through the oldest son of each generationís oldest son. The birth of a daughter breaks the lineage. But unlike Koro, Nanny Flowers and the others donít find the little girl useless.
In fact, as she gets older, she possesses talents that echo those of the ancient Whale Rider for whom she was named. But her abilities are of little comfort to Kahu, a girl who adores her great-grandfather and is shattered by his constant rejection and assertions that ďshe is of no use to me.Ē
Itís this craving for her great-grandfatherís love that provides Kahuís real motivation. Ihimaeraís writing is just about perfect. His characters, (with, oddly, the exception of Kahuís father) are fleshed-out, interesting people. Rawiri and Nanny Flowers are especially lively and colorful. Rawiri is, of course, a devoted grandson and loving uncle, but heís also a bit of a wild child who hangs with a motorcycle gang and is sometimes mistaken for a thug. Nanny is also loving, even to her stubborn husband. But she isnít above regular threats of divorce, or smacking her wandering grandson Rawiri in the head.
But the heart of the story lies with Koro and Kahu, two characters both so single-minded and determined that they must be related. The relationship is especially interesting because Kahu seems to understand why her great-grandfather excludes her from tribal rituals and from his love, even as she disagrees with him. The result is a profoundly enchanting story that will hold in its grip right up to its tender conclusion.