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Once upon a time in Rotorua

A phantom waka and a miracle dog feature in a homegrown collection of superbly illustrated folk tales.

princess whaler
Exquisite: illustrations for The Princess and the Come-Ashore Whaler.

Mat Tait is an exquisite drawer. To examine the cross-hatching on Cargill’s Castle and the trees and lawn below is to see hours of precise ink work. Rendering New Zealand folk tales, as gathered by historian and writer Michael Brown, the illustrations have an heirloom quality about them, as though they are etchings or lithographs.

The book has seven stories, two of them taken from songs, the others handed down through families and told by folklorists. Brown, a recent PhD graduate, meticulously cites his sources in a 17-page notes section with bibliographies. His insistence on revealing them is a bit like a magician showing you where he’s hidden the white rabbit, and it deflates the power of the stories. When we get to the end of The Heading Dog Who Split in Half, a gory and miraculous tale of a Mackenzie country sheep dog, Brown notes that the story was already centuries old, told by Baron Münchhausen, and translated to a New Zealand setting. What, no southern topsy-turvy dog? Then again, tracing the genesis of tales is fascinating. It’s a study of how universal stories can be customised, just as we graffitied our army surplus satchels in school to make them our own.

LS0216_56_SUP_Heading-Dog_Brown-TaitSome stories are uniquely New ­Zealand: The Princess & The Come-Ashore Whaler tells a cross-cultural Wairarapa love story, and The Phantom Canoe beautifully illustrates the Pink and White Terraces and the terrifying waka portent that appeared on Lake Tarawera.

My favourite is The Legend of Tunnel Beach, perhaps because I’ve felt haunted by Cargill’s daughters as I’ve walked down the steps, but also because the story’s pace is so right, established in cinematic panels and told in a spooky campfire manner. Again, Brown refuses to commit to a version, offering us instead the slipperiness of urban legend, and how multiple theories were made as to the girls’ demise. But the pathos remains, of a father who lost his children and was ruined.

THE HEADING DOG WHO SPLIT IN HALF, by Michael Brown and Mat Tait (Potton and Burton, $39.99)

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