Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff

Once Were Warriors by Alan DuffAlan_Duff_-_Once_Were_Warriors

Once Were Warriors is Alan Duff’s harrowing vision of his country’s indigenous people two hundred years after the English conquest. In prose that is both raw and compelling, it tells the story of Beth Heke, a Maori woman struggling to keep her family from falling apart, despite the squalor and violence of the housing projects in which they live. Conveying both the rich textures of Maori tradition and the wounds left by its absence, Once Were Warriors is a masterpiece of unblinking realism, irresistible energy, and great sorrow.

Where to buy it: QBD the Bookshop, $26.00 paperback

When can I get my hands on it: Now!

What can I expect: Maori culture, struggling society, alcoholism, domestic abuse, nostalgia

Once were warriors is a very unique novel. It’s set in the year 1990 and portrays the lives of Maori people within a government residential area known as Pine Block. Specific focus is placed on the Heke family and the events that transpire over the course of a year. The people of Pine Block are portrayed in a very unflattering light. They’re all unemployed alcoholics who are prone to violence and neglect their children and families. This book garnered quite a bit of controversy when it was first published. A lot of people thought it was an inaccurate and extremely negative depiction of Maori people. I can’t really comment either way; however, I can say that I felt the book was a representation of the long term effects of an invaded society. “The lost tribe” was a recurring theme throughout the novel. I think the book is supposed to reflect the importance of heritage and culture and the void created by the loss of history.

“On and on and on, a reincarnation of what was, a resurgence of fierce pride, a come-again of a people who once were warriors”.

There is a lot of nostalgia for what the Maori culture once was and a sense of hopelessness amongst the characters. Grace is one of the Heke children and her story was really interesting. She’s 13 and incredibly intelligent; however, her family circumstances hinder her development. She spends a lot of time peeping through the window of a well off white family who have a daughter her age. Seeing the love and attention given to this young white girl makes her crave a better life. She’s angry for the life she was born into and wants more for herself but knows she is limited to what she can achieve because she comes from a family that stagnate growth.

“If one is blind, a sea-dweller, or a dweller in perpetual darkness, then what matter the stars? It bothered him. And he thought thus of those humans born to circumstances, social circumstances, into cultures who and which were blind to the great beyond. And it gave him a sense of loss, of almost a grieving. For them. The deprived. The ones with no choice; perhaps, even, no escape”.

This next paragraph contains SPOILERS! 


Grace’s suicide was incredibly heartbreaking. Not just because she took her own life, but because she chose to hang herself in the yard of the rich white family. She watched them kiss their daughter goodnight and shower her with affection. She watched them go off to sleep and turn out their lights. She sat there so patiently watching the everyday life of a family she wished she had. Not knowing who her perpetrator was and thinking it was her dad was also really hard to read. And while Jake Heke is by no means a loveable character, I did sympathise with him. He knows within his gut that he didn’t rape his daughter but doubts himself because he’s drunk all the time and can’t be 100% sure. Having that kind of guilt and self-doubt breaks the alpha male persona he prides himself on.


This book is difficult to read for a few reasons. Firstly, the content is pretty confronting. The book covers everything from physical and emotional abuse to sexual abuse. Homelessness of young children, alcoholism, neglected families, a neglect for educating young kids and a lot of violence. Additionally, this book also changes POV’s from paragraph to paragraph, with no warning. Conversations lack quotations and the writing style alters from literary to “slang” very frequently. I actually enjoyed this aspect. When Duff was writing in first person the writing was “slang” and when he was writing in third person, reflecting on the society and events it was written in a more literary style. It allowed you to momentarily detach yourself from the story in order to see the bigger picture of a collapsing society.

For me this writing style worked so well especially during Nig’s story. At 17 he joins the Brown Fists, a local gang. Growing up, being a part of the Brown Fists appears glorified and respected. However, once apart of the gang, Nig is quick to realise the façade of brotherhood that he craved so much.

This next paragraph contains SPOILERS! 


Nig dying was something I didn’t really expect. I also found it sad that he died for a gang he wasn’t blindingly loyal too. He has doubts and concerns about the actions of the Brown Fists and disagrees with a lot of the decisions but goes along with them anyway just to belong. Just to feel a part of something vaguely resembling a “real family”.


You get a window into Maori history within this novel. The meaning of the Haka and translations of some traditional songs. I found these aspects really interesting and it made me more inclined to do a bit more research into Maori culture.

This book is part of a trilogy and I’m really looking forward to reading the next instalment. I might have to space it out with a lighter read because this book was really sad! I really do recommend this to anyone who enjoys reading about different cultures and a reflection of history. I enjoyed this book so much and it’s one that I know I’ll keep thinking about long after I’ve read it.

 “So what’s a life? Potential, sir. It’s an unrealised potential”.

Final rating: 5/5

Zena xxx


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