Encounters: The Creation of New Zealand. A History, by Paul Moon (Penguin, 2013), 432 pp., $55; Changing Times: NZ since 1945, by Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow (Auckland University Press, 2013), 520 pp., $50; The Mighty Totara: The life and times of Norman Kirk, by David Grant (Random House, 2014), 512 pp., $50; Peace, Power and Politics: How New Zealand became nuclear free, by Maire Leadbeater (Otago University Press, 2013), 344 pp., $55; John Key: Portrait of a Prime Minister, by John Roughan (Penguin, 2014), 256 pp., $38.
Among New Zealand’s standard repertoire of icons, emblems, people and place-names – the potent symbols of nation-making – a handful reoccur in context after context, cultural survey after cultural survey, book after book. The best-known general histories, from W.H. Oliver’s The Story of New Zealand (1960) to Keith Sinclair’s A History of New Zealand (1991) to Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand (2003) tell the New Zealand story as a drama, or as a sequence of melodramas: short-term conflicts followed by short-term resolutions. The general tenor of these volumes presents history as semi-fiction, agreeable myths, endorseable legends; thus they serve to highlight that all such narratives have their blind spots, their favouritisms, their banged-on-about obsessions, their honed agendas. One reason Michael King’s populist The Penguin History of New Zealand proved a best-seller was that it carefully rang the changes on agreed national myths so as to reinforce or endorse them rather than challenge or revise them.