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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What was New Zealand really like in colonial times?

Today I'm welcoming award-winning short-story author Rebecca Burns to my blog. Her latest book, The Settling Earth, was published in December by Odyssey Books, a small publisher based in Australia. It contains an interconnected collection of stories set in colonial (historical) New Zealand - a fact which immediately makes this ex-pat want to read them. I'm delighted to have the book on my virtual bookshelf, and I'm eagerly awaiting some real time to read. So... over to you Rebecca. Just what was nineteenth century New Zealand like?

The Settling Earth – life in nineteenth-century New Zealand
by Rebecca Burns
In the nineteenth century, a section of middle-class British society was faced with a difficult choice. Unmarried women, with little hope of meeting a future husband, either had to face social disdain by going out to work, continue to be reliant on elderly parents, or, as many brave souls did, take a leap into the unknown and emigrate. Indeed, the nineteenth century saw the migration of thousands of men, women and children, to settler colonies in the British Empire. Between 1875-1879, when emigration was at its heyday, 60,000 settlers arrived in New Zealand.[1] Unmarried, single women, were a key part of this movement. In my new collection of short stories, The Settling Earth, I fictionalise the experiences of settlers in New Zealand, and give a portrayal of what life was like for some women who made this bold move.
Some women did emigrate as newlyweds or with hopes of finding a partner in the colonies. In The Settling Earth, Sarah is married to William, a friend of her father’s and a much older man. He has taken ownership of a Canterbury sheep run; long absences and frequent trips to town (where he pays furtive visits to a brothel) leaves Sarah isolated. Like other settlers living in the New Zealand backblocks, Sarah experiences terrible loneliness. Indeed, it was not uncommon for wives to be miles away from their nearest neighbours, separated by a day’s hike or ride.
Despite this isolation, women were exposed to a high degree of attention, simply because of their gender. Women were scarce in some parts – colonial New Zealand had an abundance of bushmen, swaggers, gold diggers, and farmhands, but options were limited for those looking to marry. In some cases, sexual interactions became commoditised, and The Settling Earth offers a fictional representation of life in a brothel. Female characters, such as Phoebe, were there because of failed love affairs and poverty. The Settling Earth also portrays the desperate choices made by some characters when they inevitably fell pregnant – Dottie, the child of one character, is left with a woman who runs a baby farm. The Victorian term “baby farm” refers to a household which took unwanted children in and, in some cases, neglected them and allowed them to die. Dottie’s mother is not a prostitute, but an unplanned pregnancy and conflicted professional ambitions lead her to feel she has little option but to abandon her child.
Settler life in nineteenth century was challenging, difficult, inspiring, rewarding and, at times, terribly, terribly hard. It was a fascinating area to research and The Settling Earth offers the reader a collection of stories that provide a fictionalised snapshot of life during this time.
 [1] Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand (London: Penguin Books, 1959, 1980), p. 156

The idea of a set of interlinked short stories combining into a collection really intrigues me, and I'm eagerly looking forward to reading this. 

About the Book:

"Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home; a failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment; a sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant - The Settling Earth is a collection of ten, interlinked stories, focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers' attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land.

Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succour offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities - these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land."

Find it on Amazon at:

About the Author:

Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), and has been profiled as part of the University of Leicester's "Grassroutes Project"-a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county.

The Settling Earth is her second collection of short stories. Her debut collection, Catching the Barramundi, was published in 2012 - also by Odyssey Books - and was longlisted for the Edge Hill Award in 2013.

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