2009’s Best Book Title (Spring Break Read-a-thon, Installment III)


My favorite book title of all time may just be Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, with Brock Clark’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England coming in a close second. Now I’ve got a worthy number three, in Christina Thompson’s Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story.

The colorful title, Thompson explains, is “what Darwin [as in Charles Darwin] said that Cook [as in Captain James Cook] said the Maori [as in the original inhabitants of New Zealand] said at that interesting moment when the Europeans [as in explorers, colonists, and, ultimately, conquerors] first appeared.” Darwin sailed the Beagle to New Zealand in 1835, with Cook’s 1769 experience with the native New Zealanders clearly in mind.

Past encounters had taught Darwin and other explorers that the canoe travelling, spear and club brandishing Maoris were bold, warlike, belligerent, sometime cannibals who could surprise one as much with their willingness to do business as with their deadly cunning and guile. Ultimately, unfair land deals, foreign disease, and intertribal conflict pushed the Maoris from their place as New Zealand’s power brokers.

What’s interesting about Thompson’s approach is that she sprinkles her account of New Zealand’s history, people groups, and cultural evolution with the history, people groups, and cultural evolution of something much more personal: her modern-day marriage to a Maori man, who goes by the oddly non-native sounding name of Seven.

Thompson’s treatment of meeting and later marrying Seven is fairly dry and romance free—strange to hear a relationship recounted with such clinical objectivity. We don’t really learn much about why the two are attracted to each other, what prompts their decision to fuse their two lives, and what, if any, problems they encounter (sure, Seven watches more monster truck racing than his wife—now editor of the Harvard Reviewcan understand, but really, it comes out sounding like no big deal).

What Thompson does give us, though, is the story of two people whose individual lives may not seem monumental, but, put in the context of New Zealand’s history and world geography, their relationship is epic. While Thompson comes off as a little bit of a cold, academic, practically minded (somewhat stereotypical) New Englander, her husband comes off as a laid back, live in the moment, never in the rat-race Pacific Islander; together they are a curious example of cultural opposites attracting, and, for whatever differences there may be, they’ve obviously make it work.

Whatever your level of interest may be in the subject or the book, I am curious about one thing: what’s your favorite book title? Go ahead…post a comment!

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