50 Years of NZ Book Awards: Fiona Kidman

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Book Awards in New Zealand. Our national prize has had different sponsors and incarnations over the years: it’s now the Ockham NZ Book Awards, held each May on the Tuesday of the Auckland Writers Festival.

Over the years many of our brightest and best writers, and classic books, have been recognised in the awards. Many of these authors are part of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. We’re celebrating their work this year by publishing excerpts from one of their award-winning books, along with notes from the authors on writing those books. Here’s to fifty more years of great books and our constellation of writers.





The Book of Secrets by Fiona Kidman (Penguin)

New Zealand Book Award 1988


Fiona Kidman writes:

The Book of Secrets, based on the story of the Nova Scotian migration to Waipu in the north, arose out of a long personal journey, an odyssey if you like because really it has never ended. I went to high school in Waipu and was caught up by its history and the old people’s stories, particularly those about ‘the Man’,  the Reverend Norman McLeod who had led the migration. Years later, when I was in my thirties and working as a radio dramatist for the then New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, I was asked to write a six part drama about a real historical event. I chose Waipu, and returned to the town after a long absence to do research. The result was a drama called Fire of the North.

            I knew I hadn’t finished with the story then. Another twelve years later I set off for Scotland, my first visit to the UK. I drove through the Highlands in a near blizzard and found the place where McLeod was born. I found too the cemetery where many of the ancestors lay. It was there that I first conceived the idea that the story of the women who had followed McLeod to New Zealand would be the focus of my book. From there I journeyed to Nova Scotia, staying for some time with a coalmining family near Cape Breton, site of the first destination of the migrants on their way to New Zealand. They stayed there for nearly forty years.

The book that I wrote drew freely on local Waipu characters, their lives imagined in the light of their history. I caused some offence and for a long time my presence in Waipu was questioned, a matter that caused me considerable anguish. But the people I had loved as a girl found a way to reconcile our differences and my place in Waipu grows stronger as the years pass. The local Museum stocks my book, and it is largely thanks to that, that the book has never been out of print since it was published in 1987, winning the New Zealand Book Awards the following year.



Extract from The Book of Secrets (Penguin, 1987)


Chapter Two


I have lived alone in this house for a long time. I have not kept records. I do not have marks on the wall, or diaries, though I am the keeper of certain books which do not belong to me but have fallen into my hands. I have a suspicion that these things never happen entirely by chance, for among them is what I call the book of secrets. This was my grandmother’s way of telling it, the secrets of her life. They are secrets to which I am linked through being her kin, and we are bound by the common thread of my mother’s life. Once I would have dismissed this as being of no importance but now I can no longer ignore it, the binding together which it made. We all had a voice, a way of telling it.
……………I will come back to the secrets, for they haunt me always, but now it is time for me to tell it, for myself. I tell it aloud as I go, here in this house, though no one can hear me while my hands move across the page.


I am Maria McClure. I was born at Waipu, a coastal village in the northern part of New Zealand, in 1878, twelve years after the Man died. The birth took place in this same old house that I live in now, a board house of two storeys, near the river arm that comes in from the sea.
……………The house stands alone in a paddock. At the back are macrocarpa trees, and alongside of it a single stark, skeletal giant that has been stripped of its leaves by lightning. The great tree just died. It is not entirely safe, so close to the house, but no one would think to remove it. It stands there bleached white now as the years pass and sometimes in high winds I imagine that it will fall over but it never does.
……………I think it is about fifty-five years that I have been on my own. I live away from the society of people in the world.
……………I say in the world, though it is difficult to say much about what the world is like, or what it means to the people who have joined it. I doubt if there are many still alive of those whom I knew when I was forced to abandon their company.
……………There is only one, whom I dream of seeing, and she came later.
……………Is she alive out there in the world?



© Fiona Kidman, 1987, published in The Book of Secrets, Penguin.

'Character to some extent is much a construction of the reader as it is of the writer.' - Lloyd Jones

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