In his new book Dear Oliver, Peter Wells defines the heritage of many Pākehā families.
These were also times of unspoken family histories, class divisions, religious prejudice, racism and the blot of dependency on alcohol and sedatives.
But unlike today’s “speed is all” emails, people did write to each other – a lot. Wells opens his narrative by musing upon an antiquity: the handwritten letter, the “slow communication” that has been part of his family’s dynamic for generations.
He is a rebel; he still writes letters. And letters are the building blocks of this story. When Wells’s mother, Bess, moved out of her Auckland home at the age of 92, he found, stashed all over the place, correspondence from various relatives, dating back to the 1890s. Each letter offered a story, however mundane.
The idea for the blend of social and personal history that is Dear Oliver came years after Bess’s move into a care home in Napier, when he started reading the letters and thinking about the lives of their writers.
Wells describes it as “the story of an ordinary Pakeha family”, but he is also defining the heritage of many Pakeha families whose ancestors made the journey from Britain in an effort to escape poverty.
In a deep psychological sense, says Wells, Pakeha “stand in a strange and controversial relationship to history”, shunted from their historical image as heroic pioneers to later definitions as thieves of Māori land and culture.
The book’s generational stories, the branches of Bess’s ancestral tree of the Northe family, are entwined in the early social structure of Napier. Patriarch Sergeant John Northe was in command of the Napier Barracks in the 1860s and Wells’s grandfather Ern Northe inherited the family wood- and coal-merchant business in 1911. Ern also built up a large stock of rental properties in Napier. Their stories stand alongside the context of Hawke’s Bay’s “squirearchy” of “sheepocrats”, who had elevated themselves to “toxic levels of snobbery” in the 1870s.
The Northe ancestral dramas – a recidivist criminal was deported to Australia; a London landlady’s letters to her brother in New Zealand are filled with “vigour and vulgarity”; a swaggering soldier is hailed for his role in the racist Anglo-Boer War; a drunk committed suicide with arsenic – are a litany of lives lived hard, not always successfully. But Wells is also writing about himself, coming to terms with aspects of his own history, circling around his tender, conflicted relationship with Bess, who died last year at the age of 100.
Wells, a gay man with no children, has shaped his book as a “letter of the future”, addressed to Oliver, the baby of a relative who had the child with her female partner. When they come from San Francisco to visit in 2016, Wells arranges a meeting with his mother, who has dementia but is still alert to certain things. When Wells tells her that Oliver has two mothers, there’s a silence as she processes this, then responds: “Two females?”
“It was the lightly veiled homophobia of a redoubtable heterosexual who, until she had to come to terms with two sons who were homosexual, forthrightly paraded her small-town prejudices,” he writes.
Wells also confronts his relationship with his father, Gordon, who returned from World War II “bitter and sarcastic”. His little boy noticed from an early age that “my father seemed to dislike me – or the parts of me that were effeminate. I couldn’t understand why.” He later writes that his father’s rejection created a child “who becomes aware of himself as something so loathsome he must face rejection from someone who, until that moment, he had blindly loved.” Thankfully, Wells achieved a “rapprochement” with his father before the latter’s death in 1987.
Two years later, his older brother Russell died of HIV/Aids and Bess had a breakdown. Once she recovered, he writes, she acknowledged publicly she was the mother of two gay sons, and in the aftermath of these traumas, Bess and Peter started to forge a strong, honest relationship, bonding over dinners and “dynamite G and Ts”.
Wells’s framing of Bess’s death, in the final chapter, “The Failure of Language”, is a sublime piece of writing. He describes feeling “an almost reverent horror … a spark of hilarity, even pleasure in knowing that she is making a mess of herself”.
This is a deeply compassionate and clear-eyed examination of a drawn-out inevitability where Wells’s emotions are elevated to a surreal level of anxiety. He tries to comfort his mother as she is “travelling inwards”, but the process is brutal.
However, in the midst of it all, he finds solace in a letter from a dear friend, writer Shonagh Koea, which he reproduces in the book. It’s “the beauty of a letter sent at the right moment”.
Born in 1950, Wells has been a gay rights advocate and a cultural activist for decades, writing, making films, helping save the Civic Theatre and Napier’s Art Deco treasures, and co-founding the Auckland Writers Festival. Recently, he has been undergoing treatment for cancer and writing a diary about it.
Dear Oliver is an important, meticulously researched book that will resonate with readers on many levels. It certainly brought a few tears of recognition to my eyes.
DEAR OLIVER, by Peter Wells (Massey University Press, $40)
This article was first published in the March 31, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.