Tu is the story of a young Maori boy and his family, and what happens when he leaves his home to fight in World War Two. It’s the story of Tu and his family, both his families, tied by blood and kinship.
He enlists against the wishes of his mother, being too young, too precious. His father, long dead, was a WWI veteran, and Tu was sheltered from his rage, his silence, the smashing and the fighting. Being the youngest boy he is their hope for a better future. He is educated and enthusiastic (not too-much like his brother Rangi, or too-little like the eldest Pita). He is an apt student, and a top athlete. When his family moves to Wellington for work Tu returns to his Mountain on the school holidays to spend time with his uncles, hunting and learning about the old arts – carving, and taiaha.
But when he finishes school there is nothing to keep him from going to war. He goes to be a part of something, to be a man in the Maori Battalion.
The book starts out with a letter from Tu to his nephews, as he hands over his journals from the war. He tries to explain to them why he is the way he is, how he wanted to burn his writings, and seems to apologize for what they’re going to find out. He ends with a letter as well. Everything in between is personal.
But alongside his journals (which eventually end up reading like a narrative anyway instead of diary like) runs the story of his elder brother Pita, and his life prior to war. Pita confesses his story to his little brother while they’re in Italy together, sharing his anxieties and regrets in an odd twist of character. He falls in love with a pakeha, a girl called Jess, who he loves while at the same time refuses to love. It’s another sad layer on top of a story that becomes progressively darker, less and less innocent.
Tu’s full name is Te Hokowhitu-a-Tu, which translates to The Many Fighting Men of Tumatauenga. He is named in honor of his father, and the Pioneer Battalion of Maori soldiers who fought from 1914 to 1918. The thing I liked most about this book was the sense of pride Tu has in his Battalion. He feels it even before he joins. After the war, when he can’t stand anything for too long, he lives in solitude and only feels at home again when he’s with his old friends.
Tu is a moving account of war, family, and honor, with a distinctly New Zealand perspective. Well worth the read.