1. Do you think birds are sexy? One of the stories I didn’t have time to mention was ‘Duck Pluck’. It features a bizarre competition in a West Coast pub, where contestants skull rum and cokes before speed-plucking dead ducks. A rather exotic American visitor called Raquel agrees to compete, but only on the condition that she can use the feathers for her erotic photography business. The way that she is accommodated by the locals—once she gets her hands dirty, has a bit of fun with them, and forgets her pain for a while—tells you a lot about the Coast that is reimagined in this book.
It’s also just wonderfully funny and weird. Raquel later has second thoughts about using the feathers for sexy photos. She asks a fellow contestant for his opinion.
‘Do you think birds are sexy?’
‘Sexy? Birds? No.’
‘Me either really. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll stuff a pillow.’
2. That’s a shrub on your face. The distinctive writing style of Tough is difficult to capture by isolating a sentence, but perhaps one example is this description of the sons of Edward Dobson. They’re early Pākehā surveyors, keen to map ‘new’ routes to the gold-fields on the West Coast. Here we see them through Dobson’s eyes: ‘His eldest sons, straight-backed, were drinking their beers through shrubberies of beard.’ Shrubberies of beard! What a perfect image. It’s funny to picture those early Pākehā with mānuka and Prickly Spaniard growing all over their faces.
It’s also typically muscular in wrestling together disparate imagery of ramrod ‘pioneer’ characters and the landscape they’re attempting to subdue. Of course, the irony is that one of those sons will later be murdered in the bush, his surveying gear buried along with his body in a shallow grave. In Tough, the bush often has the last laugh.
3. Tough Ironies. There’s a terribly moving moment in the last story, ‘Visitors’, when a man falls in a modern-day mining accident and is choppered to hospital. From the rescue helicopter there is an 'amazing view' of the mine where he works, but of course he’s unconscious and strapped to a spinal board on the floor of the helicopter, so he can’t enjoy it. It’s a typically tough irony. And it's extended by the fact that the man is now paralysed, leaving his wife to care for him and their young son, without compo for the accident because alcohol was involved.
It’s also a story that reflects back powerfully on the whole collection, because in that view from the helicopter, it’s as if we're looking back on all the frontier endeavour that’s been attempted so valiantly on this Coast. The technology of mining has improved out of sight since those first days with the pick and goldpan—their equipment is now so sophisticated that they listen to it with stethoscopes—but really nothing has changed: random accident still strikes down the average guy, and when that happens, there is the same need for the loved ones who are affected to grit their teeth and get on with it. In these stories, Amy shows how the toughness of such characters comes through in their willingness to remain open to the world's colour and humour despite such challenges.