Seven Lives on Salt River by Dick Scott
Reading Seven Lives on Salt River is like a flash back into the late 80s and early 90s when New Zealand history writing and publishing really came into its own. A time when the trend towards biculturalism was just in its infancy and writers like Dick Scott were trailblazing and popular with their presentation of aspects of New Zealand society.
Scott was born to a conservative family on a Palmerston North Dairy Farm and, over the course of his lifetime, became somewhat of a leftist thinker with a penchant for journalism. He later wrote, ‘if there was toil and trouble, I was often there.’
He went on to create and edit a couple of small time publications before writing 151 Days, a history of the dispute raging with the watersider’s union. He would find, like several of his proceeding books, that demand outstripped supply, and the ability to create strong imagery and perfectly quotable lines would continue to develop. Scott went on to write about The Parihaka Story which he referred to often as a part of history that the whole country seemed to suffer amnesia over.
When he began writing Seven Lives on Salt River it was an ambitious task. In the introduction he mentions the need to “travel thousands of kilometres” so that he can become acquainted with a true account of the stories in the book. Scott tells the history of the Pahi area in Kaipara Harbour through the lives of seven local families who settled in New Zealand alongside the local Ngāti Whātua iwi - as well as a number of other settlers - at Pahi. However, the stories would go on to become considered fundamental in the understanding of how European settlers adapted in Māori land.
The Kaipara Harbour, specifically Pahi where the book takes its setting, has the potential to be a challenging place in this time in history. However, the region is celebrated as Scott, a part time resident by this stage, explores the narratives that intertwine between these seven families as they become au fait with their surroundings - sometimes with less than ideal situations. Among the names of the settlers is one Gordon Coates, New Zealand’s Prime Minister from 1925 - 1928 from the National Party of the era. The portrayal of Coates, along with the other settlers is a fair representation of life in Pahi, but far different from the biography written about him that came out several years after Scott’s portrayal.
To say that Seven Lives on Salt River is one of the greatest accounts of local regional history is an understatement. Scott single handedly created the understanding of engagement between Pākehā and Māori during this time and wrote in such an accessible way that he was able to draw in the crowds who had been ignorant to such things. The biographical style of the writing about the seven families: the Blackwells, Coates, da Labrosses, Jackmans, Pooks Scotlands and Stevens, gives the reader so much insight into the lives that it is easy to feel deeply invested in the outcomes.
Scott was awarded the New Zealand Book Award for Non Fiction and the J M Sherrard Prize for regional history as a result of the publication and, in 2002 was appointed to the Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his contribution to historical research. Such was the importance of his writing.
Scott died in 2020 at 96 years young, and will be remembered for the way he was able to explore and bring to the fore a history of our nation that needed to be told.
Reviewer: Chris Reed