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Kaitiaki o te Pō by John-Paul Powley

Updated: May 1, 2019


Wow. What an amazing collection of non-fiction stories. Friendship, family, loss, mental health and troubled teens are all covered in these seventeen moving essays.


The meaning of the title was given in a talk the author attended about the role of the historian. Historians are kaitiaki o te pō, which translates as ‘caretakers of the night’. At which point the author says “Suddenly I felt honoured to be a teacher of history; honoured and charged with a great responsibility.”


There are some startling and unexpected moments in this book. Teaching children about the impacts of the world wars, conscious of Stalin’s comment that one death is a tragedy but a million deaths are a statistic, Powley read the kids a letter sent to his great uncle Frank. He had married a British girl while serving overseas flying bombers in WWII. The letter, sent in late 1943 is a simple rush of emotion, with phrases like “You made me terribly happy this weekend my dearest…” and “…I know I never really lived before…”. Then in the next line, “On 22 May 1944 Frank’s plane went missing over Europe and never returned.”. “The class was silent afterwards...”. I thought of my own grandfather, navigating bombers, who died when I was three, before I could know him. There were lots of things in this book that made me think of my own stories.


In his essay called ‘Anzac Day’, Powley takes aim at the same themes we hear every year; New Zealand lost its innocence at Gallipoli, New Zealanders nobly sacrificed their lives in war, we shall remember them, and those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. He dissects each trite sentiment in order and recalls the many dead of the New Zealand wars, which many prefer not to remember or to teach, and finally the inhumane treatment of pacifists and objectors to war. This is something we need to read for a more balanced view.


It would be wrong to give the impression that this book is all about wars; a great deal is about friends and family, but more is about children, teaching them and trying to set them on a good course, often against all the odds. Powley’s descriptions of what it was like to be a teacher and a Dean, trying to face into the problems of truancy, bad behavior and sometime just neglect, are stark. For me, these essays are something that every middle-class pākehā parent should read and reflect on the problems with our education system, and why it is very likely that they haven’t been directly involved in this sort of life. Solutions we are still waiting to find. This passage, towards the end of the book, was very poignant.


“People can’t be saved until they want to be, and if they don’t want to be they know the score. Teenagers have all-pervading cynicism down pat when they want to, and when they want to they have wide-eyed idealism too. This boy doesn’t want to be saved, he wants to see what ‘being bad’ means. He’s trying out the look.”


I can’t do enough justice to this book, there are too many good things to say about it, and Jean-Paul Powley is much better at saying them. Get a copy, have a read. It is well worth the effort.


Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Seraph Press. RRP $35

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