Historical fiction lovers are in for a treat this month with the launch of the book “The Naturalist” by Thom Conroy on 15 August 2014 at 6.30pm at the Central Library. “The Naturalist” is a unique perspective of nineteenth century New Zealand on the cusp of colonisation. Publisher Random House describes it as “connecting New Zealand’s past with world history and brings to life a story that needs to be told”. We couldn’t agree more.
“The Naturalist” tells the story of charismatic and independent-thinking German, Dr Ernst Dieffenbach, appointed as Naturalist to the 1839 expedition to begin the colonisation of New Zealand. In this epic journey through one of the early defining periods of our history Thom examines the universal theme of belonging through the lens of Dieffenbach’s life and perspective.
“I wanted to reintroduce readers to a man whose ideas sound closer to ours than those of his own era” says Thom. Dieffenbach was clearly a professional and expert in his field. However, he also held strong views on equality, and a belief that “a man, in his desires, passions, and intellectual faculties is the same, whatever be the colour of his skin”. Against the odds, through his actions and words, Dieffenbach managed to transcend the suspicion and hostilities of the day to be afforded trust and respect – a considerable feat of tenacity that displayed the depth of his convictions. He developed close and enduring relationships with Maori, learned the language, and ascended Taranaki in his quest to investigate local flora and fauna. These experiences are central to Dieffenbach’s character as a man of lived principles”.
Conroy weaves Dieffenbach’s compelling search for love, truth and acceptance. It features three countries, as many love interests, and the endless process of trying to make sense of everything against the tyranny of distance and dislocation. Dieffenbach’s views on the equality of Maori in intellect and sensibility would eventually see him fall foul of his profession, whose thinking at the time was that Maori were a race of savages and would die out within fifty years. Cameo appearances by Charles Darwin, editor John Murray, and Alexander Humbouldt Wakefield and the New Zealand Company serve to underline the seriousness with which Dieffenbach’s views were held as “anti-colonial” and undermining of the establishment.
Of “The Naturalist” Thom says “The Naturalist was six years in the making–a very long process that saw Dieffenbach move from a peripheral character to the central one. The longer I spent with him, the more taken I was with his uncompromising sense of humanity”. The result is this fascinating and complex story.
Thom Conroy is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University. Thom’s short fiction has appeared in journals in the US and New Zealand, including Sport, Landfall, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Kenyon Review. His fiction has also been recognised by Best American Short Stories 2012 and has won various other awards, including the Katherine Ann Porter Prize in Fiction and the Sunday Star-Times Short Fiction Competition.