'Though some readers may consider keas a figment of my imagination, New Zealanders who have lost socks or had their tents demolished know only too well that they are real mountain parrots (Nestor notabilis) and are completely in charge of the sub-alpine regions of the Southern Alps.'
In one way, it’s simply a helpful pointer for Temple’s readers from abroad. But it’s also a hint of how this absorbing book will work. Local readers like me might think we know something of these real birds and alpine places. We’ve tramped there, been harassed at those campsites. We know what keas are like.
But after only a few pages of life through the eyes of Strongbeak, the kea protagonist, we realise there’s a vast world of kea existence we know nothing about: what their myths are, what breakfast is called (First Beak), how their friendships work. In fact, their whole experience. The perspective that Temple offers—his version of kea life—is detailed and deep, and his kea psychology works, yet it’s mostly made up. These characters, their thoughts and talk, are figments of his imagination.
'impressed by all this craft, I was also simply gripped by the story'
The fact that we’re convinced is a clever trick of point of view, of fiction itself, one that works cumulatively as we read the book, and one that always strikes me in well-crafted novels of this anthropomorphic sort. Harlic: The Story of a Fur Seal Cub, for example, White Fang, Watership Down. Typically young animals come of age at the same moment their entire culture comes under threat. They must leave home to learn how to survive, then return with new knowledge of how to adapt.
Classic hero’s journey stuff, and particularly appealing to young readers on the cusp of similar thresholds and, arguably, more receptive to the genre’s powerful empathic connect. And all a trick of story, of course: we can’t know whether these animals really think the way these characters do in these books, but forget to care about the question anyway, because point of view is so seductive, and because the close sharing of someone else’s adventure always grips us.
2. A Local Craft. Beak of the Moon displays many of these techniques, adapted to the local environment. Like Watership Down, it begins on a multiply transitional point. Strongbeak, the protagonist kea, must come of age and accept his destiny as a leader at the same moment that a new species arrives and threatens to wipe out kea—or change their lives completely, potentially altering their morality in the process. The new species is a tall ‘longleg’ bird that brings clearing fires and pasture in its wake. Pākehā human settlers, in other words, but never called that in this book, because that’s not kea language. A similarly unprecedented species, woolly, four-legged, and pink-faced, then grazes everything, and there’s not enough kea food to go round, which in turn creates chinks in the authority of the existing ‘boss’ kea.
His less than gruntled friends are sent with him, and here Temple makes expert choices about character. Like Bigwig in Watership Down, Skreek is a tough wingman and enforcer; Huff-Tuft grows into more of a visionary role, not unlike the rabbit Fiver (or, for that matter, Glintamber, the kea prophet). There’s also a younger kea who always thinks Strongbeak is right, and will die for that faith in his leadership. These dynamics mean there is excellent internal conflict within the group, and a fierce test of friendship loyalty—a moral challenge that has such fruitful power in fiction, because it allows a protagonist to play out their self-doubt externally, through action and dialogue, rather than by internal angsting, which gets boring and turns readers off.
3. No simple heroes, please. But it’s Temple’s work on his protagonist that is the greatest satisfaction. This boss-in-the-making is by no means immediately and always right. Strongbeak makes some serious mistakes. One hubristic venture takes his band of kea into a storm over ‘the great water’, a sea-flight for which they’re hopelessly ill-equipped, and which costs him the life of his youngest follower and the faith of his most valuable lieutenant.
And the rival boss he must depose is not simply evil. Highfeather is jealous and self-protecting but also torn, desperate to secure his flock sufficient food in changing times, as multiple fires and sheep consume the best of it. The broader point about who’s responsible for all that mayhem is never rammed down the reader’s throat; I was impressed by Temple’s confidence to let the story speak.
Beak of the Moon seemed to be pitched at young readers, but I devoured it just this year. Impressed by all this craftsmanship, I was also simply gripped by its story. I couldn’t stop reading it. Highly recommended.