Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Champion


Back in 1989 there was a NZ children's TV series called, The Champion. Look it up on imdb.com, and you'll find virtually no information about it. In fact, it seems to be one of the few NZ children's series that's never been repeated, and I've never found a DVD version of it anywhere, either. In spite of that it was one of our family's favourites. We videoed as much of it as we could, but missed getting the last episode.

It was based on a book by Maurice Gee, which my wife and I found on our travels last week in an op shop (compulsory stops for the Crowls in all the little towns we go to). We've both read it now, and it certainly brings back some memories of the series.

However, what I found peculiar about it were a couple of things. Gee tells it in the first person, and for some reason begins by saying that he's going to write it in his "standard six voice not my grown-up voice." This is a bit of a con, because Gee actually writes it in good prose with plenty of metaphor and description; just the sort of thing a standard six child wouldn't write. Apart from that, it's an odd authorial intrusion.

And there are a few other places where there are explanations of names, as though the readers couldn't be counted on to check out who these people were if they wanted. Better just to have used the names and let the reader slide over them, as they would normally if they didn't recognise them. As we do as adults when we come across something unfamiliar. (Though I remember beginning an English children's author's book and putting it down in disgust after a few pages, because the child narrator described his parents as 'dead to the world' - I interpreted this at the time as them being dead, and couldn't understand why the child carried on out into the snow without concern.

The book also plays around with point of view. Rex, the narrator, is involved in all the major episodes, of course, but every so often manages to tell us about stuff that he 'heard about later.' While this isn't an illegitimate use of first person narrative, it just jars in the way it's used. Gee has set himself a bit of a problem, really, by using the first person, and doesn't resolve it well.

All that aside, it's a good book; it conveys a sense of time and place very well, of community, and it's full of lively characters - and some unpleasant ones. Racism is one of the themes: Rex has to grow through his problems with a black American arriving for a bit of R & R, and the local schoolteacher is presented as quite vile in her racist viewpoint, not only to the American but to the part Maori girl in her class and to the Dalmatian people.

Heroism is another theme: Jackson Coop, the soldier (the story is set during the Second World War), isn't the hero Rex wants him to be; he's got a Purple Star, but treats it with indifference. He hates war, and hates being shot at, and hates the thought of having to go back to it. At the end he acts heroically, but it's not in a situation that's in any way part of a conflict.

I was going to quote one of the bits that charmed me, but it's too long. Rex's grandmother, a bit of a naturist, who rides around on a motorcycle (with its sidecar full of vegetables she's grown) is a wonderful gardener, and at one point, in chapter 6, she introduces Jackson to the joys of compost and worms. Here's the gist of it:

Jack said, "They're workin' hard." ['They' being the worms.]
"They will be when they get in the ground," Grandma smiled. "Sunlight, Jack. Compost. Worms. Pure water. It's not a very long list, the things we need."
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