Whale Rider Summary

Witi Ihimaera

Whale Rider

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Whale Rider Summary

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The Whale Rider is a 1987 novel by New Zealander Witi Ihimaera. In 2002 Germany and New Zealand coproduced a film based on the novel which went on to win several international awards. The novel is divided into four parts, including a prologue, epilogue and glossary. Each part is named after one of the seasons and has a subtitle. Each season is similarly divided into smaller numbered chapters which shift between the migration of a herd of whales through the Pacific, and modern day first person narration about the Maori tribe’s search for a suitable heir. Man’s relationship to nature is one of the major themes of the novel, as is the progression of life from infancy to maturity. Both ideas are echoed by the layout of the novel itself and in its progression from Spring to Summer, Autumn and finally, Winter.

The novel begins with a traditional legend of the Maori tribe which tells of the arrival of Man from the East, and his relationship with all the animals. In particular, this story is about Paikea, the first Whale Rider who uses spears to create life on the Island. One of his spears is cast one thousand years into the future, and is understood to give life to Kahu, who will become the novel’s protagonist. The narrator of the modern sections of the novel is Rawiri, Kahu’s uncle.  The Maori are a tribe from a small coastal village in Whangara, New Zealand, who trace their lineage back to the first Whale Rider through male descendants.  Koro, the aging leader of the tribe, tries to ensure his line of succession, but when his first great-grandchild is born and she is female Koro feels he must search the community for a new heir since in his mind, women cannot be tribal leaders. Koro rejects Kahu throughout much of the novel, and tries to preserve traditional Maori culture in the face of spreading modernity.

Throughout the novel Kahu seeks affection and acceptance from Koro which he continues to withhold, instead beginning cultural classes and training exercises for boys from the tribe. The great irony is that while these boys all struggle to complete the tasks Koro sets up for them, Kahu excels naturally and he continues to ignore her. For example, Kahu invites all of her family to a school ceremony which Koro does not attend, if he had he would have seen Kahu lead a traditional ceremony and give a speech in the Maori language. Instead, Koro remains obsessed in his search for a male successor. He takes the boys he is training out to sea, and in order for them to prove their endurance and leadership, Koro drops a rock into the ocean and tells the boys to retrieve it. None of the boys are able to do so; however, when Kahu is taken to the same place by her great-grandmother, she appears to communicate with dolphins and retrieves the rock.

Each part of the novel begins from the perspective of the whale herd. There is one old bull whale among them that remembers the days of the Whale Rider and thinks longingly about them, even though those days are long past. The older female whales worry about his growing nostalgia, because they know that heading back to the islands would be dangerous, but after they attempt to return to an underwater trench that is homelike to them, they find the trench toxic and inhospitable. All the while the bull whale fondly remembers communicating with the human Whale Rider and eventually leads the herd to New Zealand.

A different herd of whales washes up on the beaches of Whangara, and though most of the locals attempt to save them, the whales all perish. Koro interprets this as a sign of what is happening to the Maori. However, the following night the herd of whales the novel has been following arrives in Whangara. The bull whale beaches himself, apparently waiting to die. Kahu communicates with the bull whale, who is overjoyed at the return of the Whale Rider and swims back out to sea with Kahu still on his back. Kahu sacrifices herself so that her people may continue to thrive and decides that she will remain with the herd; however, one of the elderly female whales convinces the bull whale to take Kahu back to shore. Koro realizes that he has been blind to Kahu’s talents and her leadership and finally tells his great-granddaughter that he loves her.