Last Updated 17 Mar 2023

The Theme of Legacy of Race and Identity in the Book The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Category Book Review, Identity
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Identity As Choice

One of the major themes in The Bone People by Keri Hulme is the legacy of race and identity. This book is frequently attacked by critics such as C. K. Stead because Hulme is only 1/8 Maori (Stead 103). Does Hulme have the right to speak for the Maori, and what identity issues does she touch on in her novel?

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Her main character Kerewin is also 1/8 Maori, but identifies more strongly with the Maori culture by choice. This raises the question of what is more important: the way a person is raised, or what she chooses to believe. Kerewin's rejection of white culture is particularly significant in terms of her rejecting typical white healing methods in favor of Maori medicine.

In Kerewin's discussion with Joe about their racial backgrounds, she tells him that despite her "Octaroon" origins "buy flesh and inheritance [...] I feel all Maori" (Hulme 76). Joe also identifies with the Maori, wishing he had "kept inside the faith" and believing that he would have had more success dealing with Simon's nightmares if he had been a proper Maori (Hulme 75).

Kerewin continues to explain her cultural and racial identity as she writes in her diary. She explains, "you can't help who your forebears were" (Hulme 122). Hulme uses this to give her own writing more credibility, as she asserts that attitude is more important than ancestiy. Kerewin further suggests that her mixed background makes her a "New Zealander through and through" (122). Hulme seems to understand that identification with race and culture is of conscious choice. One could certainly argue that a mixed background in an American embraces the melting pot culture more than being "pure blooded" anything.

Kerewin's attitude regarding natives versus exotic pines is a metaphor of how she feels about racial identity and supplantation. She clearly favors the native kahikatea, admiring it for its slow and gentle nature, suggesting that Kerewin more closely identifies with the Maori. She shows disdain for "cutting] down good bush" but admits that there is room in the land for imported pines (Hulme 191). This metaphor highlights that Kerewin believes in the cooperation of Maori and Pakeha.

The choosing of cultural identities is more strongly pronounced in the rejection of Western medicine by Kerewin, Joe and Simon. Simon likes Elizabeth Lachlan but fears her role as a doctor (Hulme 269). Even Joe favors traditional over Western medicine as he explains how he was treated for polio as a child (278). When Kerewin develops a tumor or lump in her stomach, she only uses Western medicine for painkillers, flatly rejecting treatment by modern means. Kerewin instead retreats to the familiarity of her kin, becoming more in touch with her Maori side (503).

In a recent Internet survey, 63.6% of everyone surveyed said that how you believe is more important than what you believe. In the case of the characters from The Bone People, their Maori heritage was more of a choice than a racial inheritance. How they believed in the Maori way seems more authentic than their racial identity could admit. Identity is simply a collection of a person's activities — what they do. If they strongly believe in the Maori way of life, who is to say that this identification is not authentic? Throughout the novel, Hulme touches on identity, and it is my opinion that though she might not have the physical Maori credentials, she definitely has the spiritual ones to speak with authority on Maori identity through her insistence that identity is, more than anything, a choice.

Works Cited

  1. Hulme, Keri. The Bone People. London: Picador, 2001.
  2. Stead, C.K. "Keri Hulme's 'The Bone People,' and the Pegasus Award for Maori Literature." ARIEL 16.4 (1985): 108.
  3. "What You Believe or How You Believe It." Online survey. 20 Mar 2006. Mental and Spiritual Health Online. 01 Apr 2006. <>.

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