Monday, January 12, 2009


Stevan Eldred-Grigg's magisterial history of the New Zealand gold rushes almost reads like a vast and brilliant novel in the vein of Moby Dick, covering all facets of one of the major and defining 19th Century industries. He explores the NZ era of gold rushes thoroughly, and locates it in an international context.

His experience as a fiction writer shows in the fluidity and precision of the landscapes and peoplescapes he evokes from a mass of primary and secondary source material that he uses rigorously, footnoting every new aspect of his rollicking true adventure. He is especially good in excavating an exacting geology of class, race, gender and sex on the goldfields, tracing inclinations, declinations and uncomformities.

This volume is a superb companion to earlier studies Eldred-Grigg wrote on NZ 19th Century gentry, luxury and sex (A Southern Gentry; Pleasures of the Flesh; The Rich: A New Zealand History).

In its revisionist but justifiable focus on the Chinese and homosexuality, Diggers, Hatters & Whores also segues neatly with Eldred-Grigg's recent novel Shanghai Boy.

The liberal interspersions of often amateur illustrations from the era - drawings, paintings, engravings - also adds colour.

At 500 pages, this work is never ponderous, though occasionally a rhetorical cliché is slipped in to oil the narrative machinery, and sometimes the piling up of short sharp detail does not create depth but only glitter. At times, it would have been good to have had more insight into some of the protagonists of this drama - they flit briefly out of court-reports and other official archives, and then disappear. But this lack is not the author's fault - he goes as far as the evidence will take him.

Eldred-Grigg the non-fiction writer, sticks to the facts and weaves them together into a beautifully-structured story. Maybe his next job to consider would be to look to the example of Herman Melville who, after years of experience and study of the 19th century whaling industry, threw himself into a character-centred 'fictional' synthesis of the material he had gathered.

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