Whale Rider

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The Whale Rider

By Witi Ihimaera
Published May 2003

Kahu (Pai) is an eight year old Maori girl with a special gift. She can communicate with whales. She could be the leader her tribe needs, but her great-grandfather adheres strictly to Maori tradition which requires a male heir. He barely acknowledges her.

The Whale Rider" tells the story of Kahu, a young girl in New Zealand struggling to find her place in her family and community. She craves the love of her great-grandfather, but he's entirely focused on the future of their tribe who don't have an elder male heir to inherit the chief's title.

There's only Kahu, and her great-grandfather doesn't see the use of a girl. Kahu is strong and determined, and her destiny as the fabled whale rider is secure due to her ability to communicate with whales, but only if her tribe notice in time.

This is a beautiful story about the struggles with tradition, about magic versus reality, about the status of our modern world with its racism and sad ecology. The theme of Whale Rider – that of female empowerment – is not unique, but the context in which it is presented is. Like many tribal societies, the Maoris are patriarchal, and the concept of a female ruler, if not unthinkable, goes against tradition. Whale Rider assumes what might happen if, in seeming contravention of religious custom, a girl appears to have been endowed with the mystical abilities of chieftain. The Whangara people live in a village on the eastern coast of New Zealand – a place they have inhabited for more than a millennium. Legend says that their demi-god ancestor, Paikea, arrived in New Zealand on the back of a whale. Since then, the first-born son has always been the Whangara chieftain – until now. Pai is the lone survivor of a difficult birth that claims the lives of her mother and her twin brother. Her grief-stricken father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), flees the island for Europe, leaving his little daughter in the care of his father and mother, Koro (Rawiri Paratene) and Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton). Koro is bitterly disappointed, since it appears that the bloodline of centuries has ended with his immediate family. He cannot bring himself to consider that Pai, the firstborn in Paikea's bloodline, might be the rightful chieftain – because she is not a male. The majority of the story takes place when Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is about 11 years old. She spends most of the film trying to prove herself to her grandfather, who stubbornly refuses to consider her as anything more than a disappointment. He begins to teach all the first-born males in the village in the "old ways," hoping that one of them will show the courage, strength, and fortitude to take over the Whangara's leadership. Ultimately, however, it is the whales – those animals that bore Paikea to New Zealand – who indirectly reveal the truth. The story itself is richly rewarding and uplifting – the coming-of-age tale of a girl who must defy the odds to achieve her goals. The characters and relationships are three dimensional. The most rewarding of these is that of Pai and her grandfather. There is affection there, but, on Koro's side, a self-imposed distance. Especially early in the film, we see that he genuinely cares for his granddaughter, but his disappointment about her gender colors his actions and perspective. For her part, all she wants to do is earn his respect – a point that is heartbreakingly illustrated when she gives a speech dedicated to him.

Paikea: The Whalerider

Reading Techniques

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Different ways to read the book are suggested here as well as suggestions for reading for personal enjoyment. Prediction
Predict what the story will be about after reading Chapter One. Reading for an overview
In pairs, select a number from 2 - 20. Turn to the corresponding chapter and read. Summarise the passage by discussing the main ideas. Present your summary to the class. Getting through the book
Read...
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