Title: The Whale Rider
Author: Witi Ihimaera
Publisher: Bolinda Audio, 2005 (Originally published in 1987, American release 2003 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Narrator: Jay Laga'aia
Rating: 5 stars
Many of you may remember the movie The Whale Rider, which was released in 2002, and that Keisha Castle-Hughes got an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress at the age of 12. This movie was based on a book originally published in 1987, and it is a beautiful work that I highly recommend, both to teens and adults.
The Whale Rider is narrated by 24-year-old Rawiri, the uncle of young Kahu. From the day she is born, she has disappointed her great-grandfather, Koro Apirana, because she is not a boy. She is the eldest child in this generation, and he was counting on a boy to be his heir, the next Chief of their Maori clan. She is adored by Koro's wife and her great-grandmother, Nanny Flowers, and her uncles, but as she grows, it's clear that she loves Koro deeply and continually seeks his approval.
The story here is linear, but we skip a lot of time in between. It begins with Kahu's birth, then Rawiri tells us about a few summers Kahu spends with her father's family (her mother's family raises her after her mother dies). Yet despite it's episodic nature, it is a very smooth narrative that doesn't seem choppy in the least. We also follow Rawiri as he spends time in Australia and Papua New Guinea, looking for excitement in his life and to quell the wanderlust he feels, with mixed results.
Really, I can't even sum this book up, even though it's less than 100 pages in print and only 3 hours and 40 minutes on audio. There is a lot of depth to this story; in terms of character, social practices, race relations, gender norms, and plot. There is magical realism and Maori lore. We learn about the family dynamics and relationships between members of Kahu's family. Some scenes are tough to read and/or listen to because of their graphic nature, and some scenes will warm your heart. Listening to this book was just a beautiful experience, and I'm grateful Sync Audio gave me a chance to listen to this.
Speaking of listening, Jay Laga'aia was perfect as narrator. Native to South Auckland, New Zealand, he has that lovely accent. I also found it extremely helpful to hear the Maori language instead of reading it. His melodious voice made my reading experience even better than if I had read the story in print, though I'm not by any means discouraging you to take that route.
One word of warning though. I listened to this while I went on my morning runs, and I found myself getting emotional while I was running. Not the best time for that.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this audiobook from Sync Audio during their free YA audiobook summer promotions. Visit Sync Audio to see this summer's selections.