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Book of the Week: Roy Colbert on Women Of The Catlins

Roy Colbert reviews Women of the Catlins: Life In The Deep South

Women have always done it hard in the Catlins, a, I was going to say a remote and difficult area on the South Island’s south-east coast, but the people who live there would have none of that. For townies, it would be remote, harsh, unrelentingly demanding and insufferably wet, raining two days out of three, but in Women of the Catlins, Diana Noonan, who lives there, has found 26 women who talk of surviving, coping and, much more than that, enjoying life immensely. But still doing it hard. The Owaka Museum has stories from a century before, the men away farming and sawmilling for weeks at a time, coming home to their wives drunk and exhausted. The museum says the women were extremely hospitable and produced huge flocks of children.

Bronwyn Schute (Photo credit: Cris Antona)

Bronwyn Shute (Photo credit: Cris Antona)

This is a remarkable book. It is remarkable because it isn’t what you think it will be. These are not fifth-generation Catlins women who have only been to Dunedin twice in their lives, these women come from all over New Zealand, from London and Leeds, from Norway, from the Philippines. Shearer Judy Walker is a Catlins lifer, but in the off season, her and her husband work in Germany. Many of these women have seen much of what the world has to offer and they have chosen to live in tiny population pockets, many far distant from their memories and influences. Sure it is very beautiful, so much green, the beaches, the birds, the waterfalls, but it’s not easy in an area where there are no jobs and your annual petrol bill for having your daughter play netball is ten grand. There is always a journey: Balclutha is The Big Smoke, Dunedin a forest fire.

Christine Mitchell at work (Image: Otago University Press)

Christine Mitchell at work (Photo credit: Cris Antona)

There are so many glorious quintessential one-liners in this book. They should pick 52 and turn them into a souvenir pack of playing cards at the museum shop. I counted at least seven that were cardable in the opening chapter, Christine Mitchell, and you would be hard put to find a better one-liner in non-fiction anywhere than Judy Walker on page 59 – “I don’t let being the wool ganger go to my head.” Or Bronwyn Shute, who perhaps sums up the Catlins woman best when she says – “I’ve never thought of myself as a successful person, but I know I could do anything if I put my mind to it.”

It is very hard to make money down there. Even farming is tough, nowhere near as many sheep now. Like the rain forest and the bush, a substantial percentage has been cut down. So the women have had to find a way. And from the necessity of a twin income, or even just the necessity of staying energised, more than just coping has emerged. Gina Gardner started making jackets from blankets, it was the only material she had. Now she makes all sorts of stuff and can hardly keep up with the orders. Kerri Stronach opened a fish and chip caravan and then decided to add an ice-cream machine. She struggled to keep up too : on the first day she sold 87 ice-creams and burst into tears when she got home from the stress and the workload.

Kerri with her caravan (Image: Otago University Press)

Kerri Stronach with her caravan (Photo credit: Cris Antona)

Other women who feature in the book are qualified teachers, librarians, pharmacists, doctors, netball referees and physiotherapists, and as things close down, they have had to take their skills and driving distances even further. Carol Geissler, who claims she couldn’t change a light-bulb before she came to the Catlins, now does absolutely everything for everybody. Holly McPhee is a wonderful folk singer, now turning heads and ears in Dunedin. Her mother Anabel, from a south-east coast on the other side of the world, has become a school librarian. Rachael Landreth competes seriously in Ultimate Frisbee.

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Gina Gardner at work (Photo credit: Cris Antona)

Women of the Catlins has the appeal of Country Calendar, an endless stream of exceptional smiling New Zealanders making miraculous stuff from a sow’s ear. And like Country Calendar, this book will be even finer reading in years to come. You mean, people did all this with their bare hands? Without robots? In spite of, of, of, living in a, a PADDOCK? And they were HAPPY?

Yes they did and yes they were. Kim Hill writes in the foreword that this is a book about the way New Zealand used to be, and also about the way New Zealand could yet be. Yes to the first, hmmm to the second. Will we be that kind, that smart, to our environment?


Women of the Catlins: Life In The Deep South (Otago University Press, $49.95) by Diana Noonan and Cris Antona is available at Unity Books.

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