The Uncle's Story - Witi Ihimaera

Ladymol's Review

I suppose, ultimately, everything we do is selfish.† I hope people enjoy these reviews and use them to inform their reading decisions, but ultimately, I just enjoy talking about the books I read. No one I know even talks about ordinary books, so I can just imagine what theyíd think if I tried to persuade them to read a book that might change the worldÖ.

So, having found someone to talk about this book with, Iím now at a loss where to begin. The story is the telling of a story. Michael, a young gay Maori, comes out to his family at his twin sisterís wedding. His aunt, present at the announcement, then gives him the diary of his, previously unknown, Uncle Sam. Michael reads Samís story. Present, past and future collide as we then enter Samís world.

Volunteering to fight in Vietnam, Sam is upholding the proud warrior traditions of his Maori culture, no one prouder than his father, Arapeta, who had fought similarly in WWII. Nothing, however, could have prepared Sam for the horror that was Vietnam. Irreparably scarred by the things he is required to see and do, Samís emotions are stripped raw, leaving him vulnerable. What he had not expected to be vulnerable to was another manís love. Cliff Harper has male-model-like beauty. Heís a war hero, a helicopter pilot. Underneath, Cliff is as damaged as Sam. When they meet, their huge vacuums of need suck each other in. Straight men, warriors, they fight what is happening with the same strength they bring to the war, but itís helpless. Theyíre helpless. Sam, however, is not just an ordinary man; heís a Maori and the spirits of his people are living in him, calling to him. In his culture, homosexuality is so bad a sin itís punished with eternal darkness, banishment from the ancestral homesófor both partners. Sam will not allow his love to destroy Cliff and so the denial continues.

This part of the book is utterly heart-rending. I could not help but make comparisons with Brokeback Mountain. Sam and Cliff are completely straight; they just love each other. Like Jack and Ennis, they are utterly trapped by their times and their cultures.†

Michael finds Samís story speaks to him so personally that it begins to change his life. Heís going through a very messy break up with his lover, Jason. Heavily involved in Maori cultural issues, he represses his gay nature. Sam begins to change that. He embarks on an odyssey to complete Sam and Cliffís story, and by doing so to find his own.

Witi Ihimaera has created a masterpiece in this book. Some of the passages in this book are almost too painful to read. Iíve never read battle scenes captured with such hideous lyricism, love scenes painted like battles. If in some future time gay men and women do have an equal, respected status and a voice of their own, then this book will have had some small part in sowing the seeds of that new, brave world. Sam is trapped in eternal darkness; Michael sets him free, and in lifting up Samís spirit to the great void, Samís story becomes all gay peopleís stories; his battles, their battles; his love, theirs. When he has finished his uncleís story, Michaelís is only just beginning. He has become a new man in a new world, spanning cultures and tribes.

If you read no other book from our recommendations, read this one and encourage one other person to read it, too. Youíll be passing on Samís story, and Samís story might just change the world.