Reading The Luminaries got me thinking about the histories of small towns and how accidentally we discover them. About twenty years ago I spent a few days in Hokitika, where The Luminaries is largely set (in the 1860s), knowing little about its gold mining past. I also realise how few of the books I read are set in places I have been, which comes from growing up in New Zealand, far away in the South Pacific, and not having the wherewithal to travel until I was in my forties. Reading took and takes me places, aided these days by the internet.
I know some of the history of Paekakariki, where I now live with my partner Prue Hyman. It’s also on the West Coast, but far north of Hokitika and in the North Island. By the 1860’s much Maori land here had beed confiscated, without compensation, Te Rauparaha was dead (1849), the whalers were gone and the road over the hill from the east of Porirua was open as a tortuous coach road.Then and now it is referred to locally as “the hill road”. The railway came through along the coast, with the first railway station opened in 1884. If a novel was to be set in Paekakariki at this time it would involve not gold, but the railway and the hill road. West coast New Zealand would also feature.
Thanks to the efforts of many local people, and cooperation with local bodies, the present railway station, opened in 1910, has been renovated and become the site of an excellent museum focussing on the history of Ngati Haumai, the railways, the surf life saving club, and the huge WWII encampment of United States Marines. Once a month Prue and I each do a stint on a roster of volunteers,= opening the museum to visitors at weekends and public holidays. (There’s a website at http://pspt.wellington.net.nz/index.htm with information and photographs.) Paekakariki remains a railway station, unstaffed these days, on the Kapiti line commuter service and the North Island Main Trunk, though trains on the latter don’t stop. It’s a picturesque forty minute electric train ride to Wellington.
Hokitika has a local museum.(http://www.hokitikamuseum.co.nz) Next time I’m down that way I’ll have a look. And if you are reading The Luminaries and want to know more about the town at the time of the book, go here for the front page of The West Coast Times on the day the story begins. (You can see the whole paper at this site.)
This blog entry has turned into a kind of case study of how a book, a physical place and the internet can work together – to my continuing amazement and pleasure.