For a while I did not like this book. In fact, I was downright worried: was I really going to pan a Terry Pratchett book? Inconceivable! So I let out a sharp breath of relief when everything suddenly clicked and fell into place. Nation is a fun yet sensitive tale, full of Pratchett’s signature wit. I mean, how can you not enjoy exchanges like this?
“The thing about the trousermen is, they are very brave and they sail their boats from the other end of the world, and they have the secret of iron, but there is one thing that they are frightened of. Guess what it is?”
“I don’t know. Sea monsters?” Mau wondered.
“Getting lost? Pirates?”
“Then I give in. What are they afraid of?”
“Legs. They’re scared of legs,” Pilu said triumphantly.
“They’re scared of legs? Whose legs? Their own legs? Do they try to run away from them? How? What with?”
“Not their own legs! But trousermen women get very upset if they see a man’s leg, and one of the boys on the John Dee said a young trouserman fainted when he saw a woman’s ankle. The boy said the trousermen women even put trousers on table legs in case young men see them and think of ladies’ legs!”
“What’s a table? Why does it have legs?”
“That is,” said Pilu, pointing towards the other end of the big cabin. “It’s for making the ground higher.”
And then there’s stuff like this:
It’s a planet, Papa. Up and down are just ways of looking at it. I’m sure people here won’t object to copies being made for all the big museums. But don’t take this place away from them. It’s theirs.
And you realize that Nation is an anti-imperialist parable that kids can understand.
(My first draft of this review read “just an anti-imperialist parable,” but I don’t think that’s accurate.)
I started to wonder how anyone could not love this book, so I checked out the 1-star reviews. Many people complained that nothing interesting happens and the characters are all stock. To that latter point: well, duh. That’s how parables work! Daphne isn’t just Daphne; she has to represent a large swath of Europeans, while Mau represents a large swath of non-Europeans. And as for interesting … at one point, Mau scares away a shark by yelling at it, and later, Daphne poisons a man with beer (these are pre-teens we’re talking about here).
I have much respect for Daphne with that action, by the way, because of what follows. She feels such guilt over killing this man (who really had it coming) that she demands a murder trial from the islanders. They, naturally, are confused by this intrusion of European-style morality and rule of law—but they give her one, island-style. And it’s not a sham; it’s a legitimate proceeding that teases out the morality of what Daphne did. But it’s flavoured with the type of democratic, restorative justice that we see in many non-European cultures. As someone interested in Indigenous issues and how we can approach justice from an Indigenous perspective, I liked this scene. There is a weightiness to it that wouldn’t be there if this book were just children’s fluff.
Instead of being fluff, Nation is a fairly serious meditation on how we should behave when coming into contact with people who are different from us. I would call it a utopian novel, because Pratchett has reimagined Polynesian–European contact in a more sensitive way. This is a vision of how it could have been, instead of being colonialist. And he does it so well, from both sides of the issue.
So long, Sir Terry. Thank you for all these wonderful stories.