Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea by T K Roxborogh
Thirteen-year-old one-legged Charlie and his brother, Robbie, are on a beach clean-up and find a ponaturi – a mermaid – washed up on the beach. Creatures are fleeing the sea because a port being built in the bay is polluting the ocean. This reignites an ancient feud between gods Tāne and Tangaroa, and their fury breaks out in storms, earthquakes and huge seas. This throws the human world and the realm of the gods into chaos. The ponaturi believes that Charlie is the only one who can stop the destruction because his stump is a tohu, a sign, that he straddles both worlds.
So begins Charlie’s journey to find a way to settle the feud and discover why he is the one for the task.
Christchurch-based author and secondary school teacher Tania Roxborogh's inspiration for the story was sparked by the question: what would you do if you found a mermaid washed up on the beach?
Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea is the resulting story and what a taonga (treasure) it is.
Roxborogh uses whakapapa to guide this fantasy-adventure novel that is unlike anything I've read before.
The story, set in Tolaga Bay, a small town on the East Coast of the North Island, came to Roxborogh in 2008. She wrote the first two chapters but was unable to progress any further. ‘It was as if the universe was saying, you’re not ready to write this story yet,’ she recalls.
As the years went on, she realised that this story was interwoven with her whakapapa connection to the East Coast iwi of Ngāti Porou and that she needed to learn te reo Māori and more about the history of Aotearoa. "In 2015, Charlie’s voice returned and I travelled to the East Coast where I was “given” the rest of the story," she says.
Charlie, the lead character, is the sort of kid every parent wants to raise. He is respectful, resilient and conscientious. But he's also cheeky, determined and content to set his own path. Charlie is very relatable, but more than that, he is inspirational. Charlie is the sort of hero our children should be reading about.
The story is gripping and Roxborogh weaves many themes into the pages - including traditional stories and knowledge, care for the environment, having courage and overcoming obstacles, family and brotherly relationships, and community. The way she pulls together traditional stories into a modern setting and time is magical.
I was reminded a lot of Pūrākau while reading Roxborogh's book. That book, edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka, was a collection of Māori myths retold by Māori writers. That time shift - pulling the past into the present - is so important, allowing us to recall that wisdom and apply it to our context. I'd never heard about ponaturi before and I look forward to hunting out more traditional stories of them.
While not really necessary, Roxborogh includes a quick helpful guide to each god and a simple te reo Māori dictionary at the back of the book to help those who are just beginning to learn about te ao Māori.
Aimed at the middle-grade reader, think eight to 12-years-old, the story is really ageless. I read it as a read aloud with my younger children, while also reading it to myself. While some of the intricacies were lost on my younger readers, they begged for 'just one more chapter' each night, daydreaming about what they would do if they found a mermaid. For myself, Roxborogh's fast pace and deftly-woven storytelling kept me hooked into the wee hours of each morning.
My only hope is that non-Māori families and children pick it up too. We all know racism is real in New Zealand, and I'd hate for a reader to be turned off by a book being "too Māori" or for thinking they won't relate to the story.
Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea is a book I will be recommending to everyone.
With a strong backbone in te ao Māori, a hero who we don't often see on the page, and a gripping storyline, our tamariki need more books like this on their shelves.
Reviewed by: Rebekah Lyell
Huia Publishers, RRP $25