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Zigzags and Leapfrogs by Maris O’Rourke


Born on a small island in Scotland to a local girl and an Australian serviceman, Maris O’Rourke was raised in a working class, dysfunctional, often violent household, around the UK and Europe. She went on to become the secretary for education for New Zealand, the director of education at the World Bank, an international education consultant, and an author.


Her memoir Zigzags and Leapfrogs is a story of constant perseverance, reinvention and transformation. O’Rourke makes difficult choices and sacrifices, juggling her personal life with professional responsibilities.

This book outlines the possibilities and ways in which women can live outside the conventions of what is usually expected in society, without stepping aside from acceptance, love and success.


It’s an interesting composition with vignettes of her life told through her poetry, news paper cuttings, interviews, graphic novels and photographs all combining to tell her story.


Readers are there as O’Rourke’s first grandchild is born, and dive deep into her early years through to her formative years. She lets readers in on important influences, relationships, hard lessons, and joyful experiences.


There are some really interesting insights into O’Rourke’s time as Secretary for Education here in New Zealand. Working under three ministers – David Lange, Phil Goff and Dr Lockwood Smith – she navigated some of the major changes within our education system, including the introduction of bulk funding. Her retelling of these times is insightful and dignified, while keeping her confidences. There’s no grand reveals or big secrets that she lets slip. However, she is truthful and to the point, clearly pointing out which Minister she believes was best suited for the job.


O’Rourke also spends a lot of the book discussing her deep affection and affinity for Ruapehu. She calls it her tūrangawaewae – her place to belong. This deep spiritual connection was lovely to read, even though O’Rourke herself reflects later on in her book that she neglected her spiritual side. Within her own life story. O’Rourke also inadvertently tells some of the modern day history of the ski fields on Ruapehu.

Her passion for learning and dedication to life-long learning is strong throughout her book, and indeed her life. She is at times overly self-depreciating, but in the sense that she is well aware of her shortcomings. However, she is also quite harsh on herself at times. Holding the reins of some of the top education roles would have been no easy feat. Combining motherhood, a relationship and dual homes, as well as a strong passion for the outdoors, would have been a constant juggle.


As her high-powered jobs wind down, O’Rourke discovers a love of poetry and briefly touches on this progression. Her memoir ends with a gorgeous, intense poem, Tangi Time, offering a slightly macabre, yet beautiful, glimpse into the future.

Her writing is friendly and, for lack of a better word, comfortable. It doesn’t feel like you’re intruding into her deepest, darkest diaries, nor does it feel impersonal. As someone also involved in the education sector, it gave me time to pause and reflect myself.


Zigzags and Leapfrogs is an interesting read offering a glimpse into the life of a woman who may not be a household name, but who’s work has impacted us all.


Reviewer: Rebekah Fraser

David Ling Publishing, RRP $34.99

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