Tooth and Nail

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Tooth and Nail
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I’ve been working on a local anthology and part of the pleasure has been the reading that has to be done to source our material. It was my good fortune to be directed by the Eastbourne Historical Society to a New Zealand novel ‘Tooth and Nail’ first published by A.H. and A. W. Reed, in 1974. At first I simply began skimming the book to find the piece I’d been alerted to, which is a very small piece about the author working as a cook-general in Lowry Bay. It was brief and not that eventful, but while skimming to find this extract, I became absorbed in Mary Findlay’s story.

Yes, it is an autobiography ‘except for some small changes made to disguise identities or to connect incidents speedily, I have invented nothing. M.F.’

I had never heard of her book or of Mary Findlay but now I want to shout to every young woman in New Zealand – read this! It is an extraordinary tale of a daughter of the depression. Her mother has died, and her father is an abusive alcoholic. The period the story covers is really quite a small part of her life, but one of the most formative times in a young girl’s life, her early and ongoing teenage years. Her courage, tenacity and lack of self-pity are quite remarkable. The challenges she overcomes, the deprivation, the knock-backs (there are so many) and the opportunities that she seizes by the throat (indeed, tooth and nail), are riveting to read about and also a fascinating insight to New Zealand social history.

Mary Findlay is blessed with real intelligence and the ability to see through the rigid conservatism of the times, allowing her to challenge it constantly albeit to her own detriment. The escapades, the adventure, the sheer grind of her life are both astonishing and uplifting. She manages to have enormous insight into her own character and doesn’t paint herself as other than how it really is, with all her flaws given equal space alongside her extraordinary courage.

Unpopular at school because she is grubby and wears patched bloomers, Mary Findlay gets her revenge on her fellow students in a school assignment that requires the class to write portraits of other students. No-one, (especially the teacher who asks Mary to read hers aloud), expected such devastating accuracy and honesty in these portraits. Even knowing that she shouldn’t write them, Mary is compelled to do so, and it is this particular aspect of her character that carries the story forward, her determination and often bloody-mindedness, which I admired and envied.

The writing is sometimes uneven but the subject matter is so compelling that it hardly matters and too, at times, there are hints of Robin Hyde and moments of extraordinary lucidity and powerful observations of both her own and the nature of other people.

I’ve decided that this should be a Kiwi Classic (revival) like ‘Sydney Upside Down Bridge’ by David Ballantyne (although I’ve not yet read this novel) – but I am sure that every high school in New Zealand ought to have this story as part of their curriculum. It bears witness to a time in history when jobs were scarce, times were tough and there were no safety nets, and social conventions were very much stacked against a girl from the wrong side of the tracks.

Mary Findlay did not live to see her book published but in the epilogue she says this:
“As the world measures achievement my children are ordinary, but I, viewing them with a certain detachment, can say they are unusual. One son is a radical, the other a wanderer; one daughter a women’s-libber, the other an opter-out.” You have to remember, this is the early 1970s. I was absolutely gripped by the autobiography and deeply touched by the epilogue which also says this:
“I cannot say that after marriage I lived “happily ever after”. Both of us bore the scars of our deprivations. How well can the unloved love? Suffice it that we stayed together, bound more and more closely by emotional need and economic necessity. Gradually there came to us a sense of belonging which grew into a deep and lasting love.”

I was so happy for the author when I read this – glad to know that she found lasting love, because after all she had been through, her courage and tenacity, she sure deserved that.

Perhaps many of you have already read this autobiography and if so, do drop by to tell me – but if you haven’t, I highly recommend that you do. It’s one of those books, I couldn’t put down and to be honest, lately, that doesn’t happen so very often. I worked in the public service in the late sixties and early seventies, and Mary Findlay’s experiences in the public service a couple of decades earlier, reminded me of the hierarchy, the sometimes futility of the work undertaken and the part that as girls, we had to ‘play’ within the conventions.

There is an acknowledgement to, of one of our important pioneering publishers… “The Publishers are indebted to Christine Cole Catley who, after the death of Mary Findlay, prepared the manuscript for publication.”

It set me thinking about how fortunate we have been to have courageous small publishing houses such as Cape Catley to ensure that ‘our’ stories are told. And makes me proud to be working on an anthology of Eastbourne writing to be published by Makaro Press a new publishing venture by Mary McCallum.

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22 thoughts on “Tooth and Nail

  1. A wonderful review, Maggie – it sounds as though this little gem made quite the impression on you. I will certainly be adding Tooth and Nail to my reading list; I am always a fan of bildungsroman novels (especially NZ lit ones!).

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    • Hello Elizabeth. Yes, I did love it – it’s really an autobiography written as a novel. I found it through the library and because I enjoyed it so much, on the weekend I found a pristine second-hand hard-back copy in the Left Bank on Cuba Street for ten dollars! Lovely as always, to hear from you, Elizabeth.

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    • This book, as you know, has been very important to me and I am looking forward to reading it again for our bookclub, Tom Findlay, Mary’s son was a big important union man who my Commnist parents thought highly of. I’m just going to look him up on Google.

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      • How interesting to hear about Tom Findlay – I particularly loved the epilogue where Mary commented about her children – thanks for this, Frances – looking forward to talking about the book at ‘book club’ with you. XX

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  2. Anne Manchester

    What a gem this book is. It is a beautifully written, honest account of herself as a teenager and this period of New Zealand history. What a woman! I found it a real privilege to enter her world and to gain an insight into what poverty and hardship really meant in the 1930s. Thank God she found happiness in the end! Thanks so much for recommending it, Maggie. I will be reommending it to many others too. Anne

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  3. Hey, I was just doing a Google search for this book as I read it years ago and now I’m trying to get my hands on another copy, then I stumbled upon your excellent review. This is a fantastic read, and as you point out, an insightful piece of social commentary. Cheers.

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  4. Ruth North

    My husband and I have recently read this and am passing our copy on to others to read. Highly reccommended as a piece of social history as well as an absorbing read.

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  5. I have just reread this book after my father gave it to me in 1975! I wish that I could discuss it with him now: I don’t think I did it justice then, with some sadness. He was giving me a gift of social history: it was an intense,
    sad, remarkable truth

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  6. kathleen mantel

    Mary Findlay is my Grandmother. So lovely to hear that she lives on through her book. I’m nearly ready to pass it onto my own daughters to read.

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  7. Rachael Findlay

    I’m Rachael Findlay – Mary’s eldest grandchild, Ken’s eldest daughter and a school librarian. As a child I read bits of the manuscript Mary showed me when she was writing it. The book was once recommended reading for English in schools but I imagine it’s long since out of print.

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    • Hello Rachael. I love hearing from the family of Mary Findlay. Thank you for stopping by to say hi. Yes, I heard through some younger friends that it was in their curriculum at school, and I thought ‘how wonderful’ and I think it should remain a recommended reading for young people in New Zealand schools – such an interesting part of our social history – and such a strong and interesting character, your grandmother.

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  8. Jenn

    Hello, just to let you know that I fell in love with this book when we read it in English class. I am currently trying to track down a copy for my personal collection.

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