Reenie's Reviews > The Penguin History of New Zealand

The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King
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Jan 12, 2009

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bookshelves: new-zealand, non-fiction
Read in April, 2009

It's kind of nice to have a country who's complete entire human history (from the arrival of the very first settlers) can fit into 500 pages. Obviously, this isn't the most comprehensive history of particular eras ever written, even on NZ, but the truth is, even the pre-European phase of NZ only begins in ~1200 AD (cf North America - 9000 BC, and Australia, ~40000 BC), so everything that has happened here, has happened pretty quickly. At high school this fact always kept me away from NZ history (except the stuff that was chosen for us in 5th form), since clearly nothing interesting could really have happened in NZ. Then at uni, I was purposefully building my history degree without any national history at all (Imperial networks and environmental history were my big things), even if I never got round to completing it... so still only pieces of NZ history, as they were relevant to the wider topics.

Anyway, too much about me, not enough about the book. Contrary to my bias, as King points out, the fact that NZ has very little history can actually be a strength - things tend to play out more quickly, more compressedly, and occasionally with a lack of cultural or political inertia, meaning that changes happen faster or differently in NZ, and that does actually make this a pretty interesting read. It's not, nor I think was it intended, to be a ground-shaking iconoclastic treatment of the subject, but one of the best parts for me is the gentle uncle-y (I could say avuncular, but I already used iconoclastic, so that's enough of my attempting to show off fancy vocabulary for one review) way that King flags up and analyses various myths that we've cherished about the country, often in the sphere of race relations. He's pretty good about pointing out the wider population's tendencies to dickishness without making you feel too much of a dick.

Like most histories that try to go up to the present day, it does get a little fragmented toward the end as more and more strands come into the account, and it shows particularly in a chapter about changing social pressures, influences and so on in the 60s - that one is particular is patchy and full of semi-randomly introduced concepts that fail to be coherent or even really that interesting. Thankfully, it picked up after that, with some interesting accounts of the social change in the 80s which (as a child of the 80s who grew up with the outcomes, rather than the changes), I'd never really thought hard enough about.

Not bad, not bad - pretty good, eh?
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