The Whale Rider

The Whale Rider Summary and Analysis of Part 3: Autumn, Chapters 9-11


Part II begins with another the account of the whale herd, but not before a short paragraph referring Paikea—who swam then came to land and married, and who now is an old figurehead. As for the whale herd, they come right above a deep-sea trench called Hawaiki or the Home of the Ancients. They await directions from their leader, who is still mourning after seven calves died in when massive tidal sound waves hit the whales. Now he is further worried by undersea radiation, and he does not know where to find the best protection for the young calves of the herd.

Once though, this radioactive place was the clear and beautiful place of his childhood with the rider. In that time, his rider had taught him how to flex his muscles in order to form handholds, saddle and stirrups for the rider and also a small breathing chamber so that both could dive together for extended periods of times in those clean waters. Now though, the bull whale realizes, this water has too much radiation, a fact that forces him to alter the usual route for the first time in all his years. What can he do, now that their place of life has become a place of death?

The story turns back to Kahu, now four. Rawiri at this time decides to leave Whangara and travel some of the world. He goes to Australia—Sydney, Australia--staying away from his hometown for the next four years. There he finds, to his surprise, an existing vibrant community of Maori people. He also finds, to his great excitement, a city teeming with life and business and activity far beyond what his little town of Whangara contained. In Sydney he encounters some of his cousins, though in a bit of a changed state, like his cousin Reremoana, who has a different name now and wears stockings and dyes her hair. He understands that they are living a way of life they wish to live, though it is different than that of their family. He admits that he too must look the same way in his leather jacket and buckles and so on. But despite all the outer change, all of them still keep their memories of back home, of their Nanny and Koro.

Soon he gets a job and joins a rugby group and makes new friends. He moves in with one such friend—Jeff from Papua New Guinea. Jeff was an easy-going, happy and trusting fellow and he and Rawiri got along quite well—always kidding around and having fun. They would go surfing or play rugby or hike and so on, to such an extent that Rawiri said it felt like drowning in it all. One day though Rawiri’s past comes back to him when Porourangi gave him a call with the news that he was getting married to Ana. He also gives the news that everyone back home misses him, especially Kahu. Soon after, Jeff too gets a call. His mother asks him to return to Papua New Guinea to help his father on the farm. Though Jeff does not want to return to his family, his father is in too poor a state to do without him. Jeff does ask his friend Rawiri to come with him though, and Rawiri, though hesitant at first, accepts. He calls back home to tell them the news. Nanny Flowers responds with great sadness, as she now severely misses her grandson, but Rawiri goes nonetheless.

He spends two years in Papua New Guinea and though he was with a friend, those years were not always happy. Rawiri realized right from the start that he was too dark-skinned for Jeff’s mother’s racist sensibilities. This became progressively clearer to Rawiri, though she usually treated him outwardly with some measure of politeness. Jeff’s father Tom though was different. Him Rawiri respected, especially for his hard work. However, Tom has become partially blind and sick and needs Jeff to act on his behalf in managing the plantation. So the two young fellows set to work. The harsh terrain and climate of the land was a substantial obstacle, yet they were able to carve out some product. When there Rawiri noticed that the government of Papua New Guinea was attempting to establish a sense of nationalism into the country, an endeavor which Rawiri found astounding given that the country was made up of hundreds of smaller tribal groups with their own languages, and that residents of the country still maintained strong connections with those falling outside the borders. He found what was happening there to be similar to what was happening to the Maori in New Zealand. His thoughts continued along these deeper lines to such a point that he came to understand himself more as a Maori, even though he was spending his time in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

During this time he keeps in correspondence with Porourangi. From him he learns that Koro is coming more and more to trust in Porourangi’s leadership and has chosen him as the successor of his generation. Now though Koro must find a successor for the generation after, and he is testing various boys within the town to see which has the right mettle for the job. In the meantime, Ana and Porourangi decide it is time to bring Kahu back home. The now six-year-old girl thus comes to Whangara, this time to remain long-term. In these letters Porourangi also expresses his worry for his people. He is worried that the Maori people may not be able to preserve their culture in the coming generations. All their hopes are resting on Koro and a few others and the schools in which they are teaching these customs. As for Koro, Rawiri says, that old man is like an ancient whale in modern times.

Soon enough a year and a half passes following his coming to Papua New Guinea and Rawiri starts to feel homesick. Jeff and him get along well enough; however, slow but surely Jeff’s parents push their son to socialize more with the people of his race, not with people like Rawiri. Around the same time Rawiri hears that Ana is pregnant, news that has made both Kahu and Koro enormously happy. Then in the midst of all this occur three events that push Rawiri to make a firm decision to return home. The first was when Jeff’s family was going to a reception and Clara, Jeff’s mother, tried to keep Rawiri from joining them. Although he does end up going with the family, during the reception itself, she publicly compares him to a stray dog. The second event occurred when driving home, Jeff accidently runs over and kills a man walking along the road. When they realize it is a native—which means that he would have a darker skin color than Jeff’s family—Clara urges them to drive on in fear that the man’s tribe will kill them in payback. Rawiri realizes the man is his own cousin and he runs his cousin’s side while Jeff drives away with his parents in fear and shock. The man dies and Rawiri returns home. He decides not to blame Jeff, on account of the act being an accident. He does however realize that he does not belong with this family and a great sadness comes over him at the loss of his cousin’s life. The third event that pulls Rawiri back home is the receiving of letters from back home—one from Porourangi saying the new baby is a girl and another from Kahu asking about him. And so Rawiri leaves Papua New Guinea behind and returns to Whangara.


Developed in this section is one of the key themes of the story: the growing corruption of the earth and its reactive hostility against man. In the beginning of the book, Ihimaera provided the narrative of nature as being ecstatic for man’s coming, as nature needing man as a steward, as man being the one to use nature for good. This is all in contrast with the present state of things. In the previous section Koro narrated the story of whaling. Now this principle develops with Rawiri’s description of the land of Papua New Guinea as resilient against man. He describes their interaction on the plantation in terms of a battle and struggle between man and nature. This is in stark contrast to the introductory remarks of nature being ready to serve man. Rawiri himself says you have to keep fighting against nature, and as soon as you stop, it will reclaim all of this. That is hardly the paradigm of man working with nature that one would expect from the introduction. The starkness of this contrast pushes the reader to ask: just what was happened? What has brought us to this state? And the only conclusion to draw from based on what the author has been narrating—and especially based on Koro’s own words—is that corruption has appeared in land and sea because of what the hands of men have wrought, and they are being made to taste some of what they have done so that they return.

This corruption has far reaching consequences. It is the central conflict of the whale’s story at the beginning of the section. Ihimaera writes that the whale herds are witnessing unprecedented corruption. Thy must make choices they never had to make before. The herd loses a number of its precious children to this growing corruption and hostility of earth. And after this tragic incident they still are persecuted, because when they go to where they think is refuge they find it radioactive. What previously had been a beautiful spot of repose for the herd and a precious location to the ancient bull whale has become a polluted, hostile, deadly place. He is forced to take paths and make choices that he never had to before. We can only guess how old the bull whale is—centuries perhaps--and he is describing something that has never in all his years happened before. This is meant to get the reader to understand the unprecedented nature of this problem of pollution and corruption of the earth.

In this section another important point is the motif of comparing Koro to the old bull whale whose story begins every section of the book. Up until now the reader has seen that their situations are similar. The whale is facing a time of crisis. The earth is not so hospitable as it once was. Thus the whale is forced to make hard choices. For the Maori too the world is not as hospitable, and some have under this pressure taken to hunting fish and whale and breaking with tradition. The old whale is getting older and older, and he has great longing for the past but cannot ever return to that past. Koro too has a strong attachment to the past. It is his life’s purpose to preserve that past and pass it on to the next generation. He knows that he is an alien in a strange new world and he awaits his death like the old bull whale. Furthermore, both whale and man have supporters all around them wishing to help, they just cannot accept that help. In the whale’s case, this means that he has his female counterparts all are trying to express their support for him and all trying to wean him off of his desire to return to his old master. They try to comfort him but he does not take any notice or improve at all from this effort. As for Koro, he is surrounded by people like Nanny and Kahu and Rawiri who love him dearly; yet he cannot understand the depth of that help and he definitely is not able to accept it, so he too is stuck in this limbo. All these traits the author has presented, but the keystone of the comparison is when Rawiri directly compares the two. In this way the author provides an explicit suggestion to think of these two in terms of parallel characters.

A portion of this section the author devotes to developing Rawiri’s characterization. As he journeys, he undergoes a type of coming of age. When he leaves Whangara, he leaves where he is comfortable and he goes to a place of testing. In Australia, he is confronted, perhaps for the first time, with the choice of leaving behind his Maori way of life, moving to a big city and getting lost in the crowd. For a while it seems that he does just that, while at the same time encountering his cousins who have done the same thing. Ultimately though his heart remains connected to Whangara, and even though it takes him a few years to return he eventually does return. This is in contrast to those cousins he meets in Australia, in that they are not able to go back. He learns a lot form this experience about his own cultural identity and returns. The extent of loyalties is not known until they are tested, and here was Rawiri’s test of loyalties.

Finally, this section uniquely deals with the intertwined issues of racism and nationalism. In Papua New Guinea, Rawiri and those like him are the victims of racism. This is not just racism coming from nameless faces; his best-friends parents—the very people hosting him in the country and benefiting from his work--look down on him because of his race. This family is otherwise portrayed as perfectly normal; indeed, Rawiri often expresses love for the son and respect for the father of that family. Yet despite that they are racist. Through this strange reality, Ihimaera suggests that racism is not just the domain of extreme crazies but that normal people can easily fall prey to racist thought. The author brings up the topic of nationalism in the same setting when Rawiri notes that Papua New Guinea is attempting to unify by artificial borders this eclectic collection of different peoples and tribes, who are not unified by a single language or culture. Rawiri emphasizes the impossibility of such a task and compares the circumstances in Papua New Guinea with those in Whangara, noting how similar the two are. By witnessing this attempt at nationalism, Rawiri comes to understand more about his own people and the challenges they are facing at home in interacting with their own government.