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"The Bone People" with Ellen Wieland

Welcome to the second installment of Holding History’s Bookbag: a biweekly series discussing the books - and the forms they take -  that are getting us through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. This week we talked to Ellen Wieland (Statistics Major, UW-Madison Class of 2022) as she rereads Keri Hulme's The Bone People. It won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1985, after twelve years of writing and near-universal rejection by publishers. The Bone People deals with the displacement of the native Maori people in New Zealand, as its main character creates a life for herself detached from society. Wieland is a statistics major at UW-Madison, currently spending the summer with her parents in Hartland, WI, where she raises chickens like Attila the Hen (pictured). The Bone People is available from A Room of One's Own.

Holding History: There are lots of ways to hold and read a book. Will you tell us about your tactile experience with The Bone People

Ellen: I have a soft-cover book. I bought it second hand about six years ago, I want to say. It’s kinda beat up -it’s got some folded pages, a couple rips here and there - but it’s the type of book I love to read. My local library is shut down because of the pandemic, so I’m revisiting all the books I have sitting around.


What made you want to pick up this book again?

It is a work of fiction, largely character-driven, and I remember being so interested in how complex the characters were that I wanted to come back to it six years later as more of an adult and see if my opinions on it have changed at all. I think they have.

Can you describe your ideal reading experience?

I’m a huge fan of natural light, so I’d have to say sitting outside, sitting by a window. I can work with a lamp, but books are best read with sunlight. 

Would you give The Bone People as a gift (and to whom)?

I think I would be very cautious to give it as a gift. I think I would [give it] to the right person. Like I said, it has a lot of complex characters and it deals with some heavy topics, so I’d have to give it to someone I feel confident would enjoy interacting with it. The book poses people who aren’t entirely good or bad, with hard problems and no interesting solutions.

Favorite idea or quotation from The Bone People?

The main character, Kerewin, has decided that she’s done with society and just leaves. She buys a plot of land out in the middle of nowhere, establishes herself there, and tries to never interact with another human ever again. It’s this idea of independence, but she’s drawn out of it when this seven-year-old boy breaks into her house - but he can’t speak. So it’s them communicating and him drawing her back towards people. I think it’s an interesting argument made that you can be independent and a strong person on your own, but you need community and family, which can look different for everyone. 

That makes me think of our current situation. The country has been shut down since March, and it seems it will stay that way for the foreseeable future. Has that put this book in a new context?

It definitely has. I think that’s part of the reason I chose to read this book again, but Kerewin chooses to be on her own, she doesn’t want to be around people. I’m very much the opposite: I miss being on campus, I miss seeing people. I don’t think I could survive the life she’s living, but it works for her. So more power to her, I guess?

Favorite character, object, inhabitant, landscape?

The Bone People takes place in New Zealand - beautiful landscape. They’re right by the ocean, they always go to the beach and the tidepools. I think my favorite part is the life Kerewin has built for herself. She has this land, but she doesn’t get a normal house. She builds herself a tower that’s seven stories tall. It’s kind of Rapunzel-like, but again, it's her choice to live there. The top floor of her tower is her art room - that’s where she paints and keeps her artwork on the walls. And that’s just so cool to me, I love that mental image. 

Imagine going to a rare books archive and finding a few books that The Bone People might converse with. What comes to mind right away?

Again, it takes place in New Zealand. The book and the characters talk a lot about culture and heritage. So this book converses very well with an analysis of a history of imperialism and colonialism, and how people now - generations later - connect with their heritage. The main characters are Maori, so they’re living in a modern society where British colonization has very much changed the landscape of New Zealand, but they’re still trying to find ways to stay connected to their community, to each other, and to themselves. 

About the Author & Project

"The Bookbag: What We're Reading...and How" is a biweekly series where we discuss books—and the forms they take—that are getting us through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.  The Bookbag is edited by Holding History Alum Sam Landowski (Political Science, UW-Madison, graduated 2019). If you're interested in contributing, reach out to us at 

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