Keeping Stories Alive

Mary-Anne Scotts grandfather

The TomoAuthor Mary-anne Scott has just released her latest book, The Tomo, with OneTree House ($24). This novel for young people is based on some old family lore; we asked Mary-anne to tell us more.

One hundred years ago, my grandfather was a young man mustering sheep on a station, Pōhaturoa, which lies on the inland road between Gisborne and Wairoa. They were lean times and my grandfather, who’d left school at twelve to help support the family, worked from dawn till dark, six days a week. On one occasion, his beloved heading dog was chasing a ram in a scrubby bush-clad area when both animals fell down a deep, vertical cave, called the tomo.

Grandad could hear faint whimpers from the depths of the cave and he admits in the booklet he later wrote, Dogs, Horses and Men, that he sat above the cave entrance and cried. His sheep dog was an indispensable worker and a loyal friend. On his next day off, three days later, Grandad went back to rescue him. Getting down wasn’t so bad but getting back up was terrifying and, he always said, he didn’t know if he would make it.

My twelve-year-old son was staring down the barrel of an assignment deadline, and asked, ‘What can I write about? Nothing exciting ever happens in our family.’

‘I know a good story about your great-grandfather,’ I suggested. ‘He once climbed down a deep cave to rescue his sheep dog.’

Mr Twelve eyed me suspiciously. ‘How deep?’

‘Ninety-seven feet.’

The story captured my son’s attention. He converted the feet to metres, stepped out the distance and lay rope along the ground to imagine himself scaling that length. He climbed trees with our good-natured dog in his arms and went on to read all of his great-grandfather’s adventures.

Stories have a way of weaving themself in and out of lives and nearly twenty years later, I came across the booklet and read it again. I thought about my grandfather and remembered his tall, wiry frame and his scarred, rough hands with the tip of his little finger missing from a lawnmower accident. He used to tease us with his black nail stump as a warning to children against a raft of crimes, including nose picking. We remained alert to the possibility.

Last summer I made a long detour when I was driving to Gisborne. I slowed down as I past the entrance to Pōhaturoa Station where my great grandparents had been the managers when their young son was mustering. I imagined the shy Emily Glynan who came to work in the ‘big house’ and ended up marrying Phil Evans, and so became my grandmother. I decided I needed to contact some people.

The current managers at Pōhaturoa Station let me visit and walk on the land. The dramatic landscape dominated by Mt Whakapūnake started to get under my skin and I felt a connection to my ancestors. The station is now owned by a Māori Trust and one of the trustees, a local historian, spent a full day helping me understand the significance of the legends and history of this special place.

My fictional story started to form in my head as I imagined my character’s backstory, his traits and quirks, and the events that would lead him to undertake the rescue.

Bravery and danger make good stories for readers of any age, but I had a year’s work ahead of me to ensure the situation was authentic. This included studying knots, caving, rescues, working dogs, horses, the weather patterns and so much more. I asked questions of both friends and strangers to bring it together.

I gave my character the same naïve confidence young Phil had shown when he tied the plough lines to a tree and lowered himself over the side of the tomo and I gave my character Grandad’s name. I also know a little love interest is as crucial as a dramatic rescue and so the farm manager’s daughter, Emara, turns up, sassy, capable and environmentally aware.

As a grandparent, I realise it’s easy to be lost in the noise of the younger generation and stories of how it ‘used to be’ can be sidelined. It has taken a century for The Tomo to be told this way. It has been an incredible experience.

My situation may be an example of how we can keep stories alive for the next generation. Perhaps you have an extraordinary tale that needs to be told — this might even inspire you to write it down.

By Mary-anne ScottMary-Anne Scott

PHOTO CAPTION: Mary-anne’s grandfather, Phil Evans at Pōhaturoa Station, in the 1920s

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