Sons for the Return Home was first published in 1973. It is the story of a Samoan boy who migrates to New Zealand with his family, grows up in Wellington and falls in love with a wealthy Palagi girl. They meet at University, and she is instantly attracted to him. But he is wary of her, and the complications that would arise if they were to be together.
His parents are devout Christians raising their two sons in a ‘pagan’ country, saving up money for a grand return to their homeland. Her parents are rich upper-middle class New Zealanders with little racial understanding. Despite everyone else they fall slowly, steadily, and inevitably in love.
But this is not a simple story. Strong currents of racism undercut the romance, and we are always aware of how difficult their relationship is. In one instance the girl accompanies the boy to a Samoan dance dressed inappropriately, and he says nothing, refusing to shield her from their judgement because she has to learn. Likewise, she lures him to a party of predominately rich Palagi and goads him into picking a fight with an ex-lover, to prove to them that he is better, and just as worthy.
There are all the elements of a classic tragic romance in Sons for the Return Home, but it doesn’t quite get there. The problems are too real. Life gets in the way. Instead of a perfect peak and a speedy resolution there is slow decay and a gnawing dissatisfaction. No catharsis. No such luck.
I liked that the story is so complicated. No names are mentioned in the book, and I’m not sure if that makes the romance impersonal, or universal and easy to relate to. What is the significance in He and She, Him and Her? Does it make Their story all the more memorable, or worse, easier to forget?
The main character is very fleshed out, interesting, and multi-dimensional – though not necessarily in a good way. There were things I really loved about him, like his beliefs (or non-beliefs), intelligence and sense of humour. At times he was very down to earth and easy to love. Other times he was vulgar, abusive, and violent – and not in a riotous Alex a-la Clockwork Orange kind of way, but in a cold, focused, scary kind of way. Credit to Wendt for such raw writing, and meshing the different aspects of his character together.
Yes, the writing is good, but the story is so sad, the characters so brutal and the attitudes so bleak that Sons for the Return Home is a book I did not necessarily enjoy reading. Nevertheless, it is worth reading. New Zealand has evolved a lot in the forty-odd years since it’s publication, so I found it interesting to learn about prejudice and racism back then. The migrant’s dream is also beautifully rendered, and my favourite part of the book was probably the return to Samoa, and adjusting to village life.
No, actually, my favourite part was this one line, when he says, “I trust you. I love you.” If only things were that simple.