I was familiar with the movie Whale Rider (well-known in New Zealand since it's lead actress earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress at the age of 13, at the time the youngest ever nominee) but had never read the book until I assigned it to my daughter for a World Literature Course. As is often the case I was surprised at the many differences between novel and movie.
The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera tells the story of Kahu and her great grandfather Koro, a local Maori chief. He is looking for a young successor he can train to help lead a renaissance of the local Maori people. He hopes his grandson's soon-to-be-born child will be that successor. However the baby is a girl, Kahu, and he believes tradition dictates that she is therefore not suitable as a leader. As she grows her abilities and leadership potential shine through. But he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge or develop these abilities, and in fact does his best to ignore her, often treating her with a degree of disdain or even cruelty.
Intertwined with the their story is that of a pod of whales with an ancestral connection to Koro and Kahu's people. At first I found the whale's story a little mystical and felt it interrupted the main narrative flow. Inevitably the two narratives came together in the novel's dramatic climax and Kahu's actions finally forced Koro to acknowledge her as the future leader of his people.
The novel was a short and relatively easy read, although the switching between two narratives made it a little hard to "get into" initially. I also felt that using Rawiri (Kahu's uncle) as a narrator took away some potential emotional impact since he was often removed from the main action. However, the novel offers some interesting insights into Maori culture facing a time of transition and many of it's themes - love, cultural identity, looking to the past vs. looking to the future - are universal, extending well beyond the time and place in which The Whale Rider is set. Definitely worth a read by people looking for less well-known classics, especially those from other cultures.