The Bone People, 1984

Keri Hulme, a New Zealand native, was born on March 9, 1947, in Christchurch, New Zealand. She is the daughter of John W., a carpenter and businessman, and Mere, a credit manager, and sister to five siblings. Her father died when she was eleven years old. Hulme is descended from a rich background. She noted in Contemporary Women Poets that she is a mix of “Kai Tahu, Kāti Mamoe (South Island Maori); Orkney islanders; Lancashire folk; Faroese and/or Norwegian migrants” (see Mimicry, Ambivalence, and Hybridity). Her early education was at Aranui High School. Upon graduation, she began working at a tobacco farm harvesting crop. Between 1967-68, Hulme sought a law degree from the University of Canterbury, but did not complete her degree. After leaving law school, Hulme returned to tobacco picking.  Throughout her career she has held numerous other jobs including fisher, TV director, cook, and a writer. She was a writer in residence at Otago University in New Zealand in 1978, and in 1985, at the University of Canterbury. Keri Hulme has said that she enjoys fishing, painting, drinking, reading, walking, playing, eating, and people-watching in her spare time (Who’s Who 309). She belongs to the New Zealand Literary Fund (advisory committee) and the New Zealand Indecent Publications Tribunal. She is a patron of the Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand and a founder of the Wellington Women’s Gallery. As of 2012 she is the only New Zealander to win the Booker Prize.


Hulme has won many prestigious awards for her work including:

  • the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award (1975),
  • the New Zealand Literary Fund Grant (1975, 1977, 1979),
  • Maori Trust Fund Prize (for writing in English) (1977)
  • mini-Burns Fellowship (1977),
  • the East-West Centre Award (1979),
  • Writing Bursary (1983),
  • the Book of the Year Award (1984),
  • NZ Book Award (fiction) (1984), shared Canty Writing fellowship (1985),
  • Mobil Pegasus Award (for Maori literature) (1985),
  • Booker-McConnell Prize (1985),
  • Chianti Ruddino regional Award (1987),
  • and the Scholarship in Letters (1990).

Works by Keri Hulme

  • Hulme, Keri. The Bone People, New Zealand: Spiral & Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.
  • —. Homeplaces: Three Coasts of the South Island of New Zealand. Abingdon: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd1989.
  • —. Lost Possessions. Melbourne: Victoria University Press, 1985.
  • —. Strands. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992
  • —. Te Kainau: The WindeaterNew York: George Braziller, 1987.
  • —. Te Whenua, Te Iwi/The Land and The People. Christchurch: Port Nicholson Press, 1987.
  • —. The Silence Between. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
  • —. Stonefish. HUIA PUBLISHERS, Wellington, 2004.
  • —. Bait. London: Pan Macmillian, 2009.

She is currently working on Bait‘s companion novel, On the Shadow Side.

The Bone People

The Bone People, Hulme’s most famous work, evolved from a short story entitled “Simon Peter’s Shell.” She wanted to incorporate both real and invented Maori myths into her novel. The Bone People focuses on three main characters. The central character is Kerewin Holmes (a character similar to Hulme) who lives isolated in a seaside tower, a mute child named Simon, and his abusive stepfather Joe Gillayley. Hulme explains: “‘What I was doing in The Bone People was getting my head straight on questions like: What happens to outcasts? Is there any point to life? What would happen if Maori spiritual presence was resurrected in this land of ours?” She describes her story as a deliberate attempt to manufacture New Zealand myth, to blend real and invented Maori legends with European literary style, harmonizing both of her country’s cultural influences (Contemporary Literary Criticism 158). The Bone People was rejected by many publishers, until 1981 when a small feminist publishing company, the Spiral, was formed by women who were enthusiastic about the novel. The novel was printed in an unedited form and has received international critical acclaim since its publication.


Hulme’s books incorporate a conglomerate of themes. She writes on love, violence, identity, nationality, and the responsibility of citizens. She also incorporates themes of “exploitation of the land, family violence, and the regeneration of Maori spirituality […].” Critics most often praise Hulme for her imaginative and powerful style that blends reality and myth in a simple, yet serious, narrative; they note that “the themes of love, violence, national identity, and social responsibility are compellingly examined through the relationships of the three main characters” (Contemporary Literary Criticism 158) in The Bone People. Hulme’s style ranges from prose to poetry, incorporating both reality and myths which have no beginning and no end.

Works Cited

  • “Contemporary Authors, Keri Hulme.” 1989. Web. 18 Oct. 1997.
  • “Interview with Keri Hulme.” Contemporary Authors, Keri Hulme. 1989. Web. 18 Oct. 1997.
  • “Keri Hulme.” Contemporary Literary Criticism: Yearbook 1985. Vol. 39. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co,1986. 158-167.
  • “Keri Hulme.” Who’s Who in New Zealand. 12th Edition. Octopus Publishing Co., 1991. 309.
  • “Keri Hulme.” Bateman Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Bateman Publishing Co,1986. 579.
  • “New Zealand literature: Modern Maori Literature.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 11 Apr. 1997. <>.

Author: Hayley Scheck, Fall 1997

Maori Culture and Myths in The Bone People


The Bone People by Keri Hulme traces the lives of Kerewin, Joe, and Simon, who live in a remote part of New Zealand. Hulme, part Maori herself, uses the Maori language in the book and makes many references to Maori culture and myths. New Zealand was first colonized by the Maoris and later by the Pakehas, or Europeans. The Maoris have their own set of myths and traditions which address the questions about how and where life began. Anthropologists believe that the Maoris came from islands in or around Polynesia. They believe that the Maori people may have sailed to Aotearoa, meaning New Zealand in the Maori language, from the Pacific around 700 A.D.

Maori Origin Myths

In The Bone People, Tiaki, a wise Maori sage, shows Joe, who is a Maori, a canoe from their ancestors’ voyage to Aotearoa. Tiaki says:”The canoe … it has power, because of where it came from, and who built it, but it is just a canoe. One of the great voyaging ships of our people” (Hulme 364). Anthropologists have different ideas as to which island they believe to be the exact “launching place” of the Maoris. The myth that began this tradition of the sacred canoes stems from the belief that Hawaiki was the legendary launching place of the Maori people (Ihimaera 8). One collectively held belief is that “they had a common origin; and archaeologists have now established that they are descended from a horticultural, sea-going people who several thousand years ago lived in certain parts of what is now Melanesia, mostly on small islands of the northern coast of New Guinea and down as far as New Calcedonia” (Orbell 4). They are believed to have migrated several times to different islands before settling in New Zealand. The traditional canoes believed to be from Hawaiki are called: Tainui, Te Arawa, Maataatua, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru, Aotea, Takitimu, Horouta, and Nga Tokimatawhaorua (Ihimaera 9). Today Maori tribes are organized around which canoe a person’s ancestors are believed to have sailed on to Aotearoa. According to Maori myth, three voyages were to have taken place, but the third voyage was the one in which New Zealand was cultivated. The creation myth of the Maoris is most throughly demonstrated in the novel through Joe becoming the protector of one of the sacred canoes. The Maoris are a polytheistic society, and through Joe’s protection of the canoe, the secrets of one of the Maori gods remains safe.

The Source of Maori Life

According to Maori myth, not only did the Maori people come from Hawaiki, but all human life was created on Hawaiki. These two myths were created by the Maoris to explain the origin of man. The first myth tells the story of how the first “human being” was made by Tiki, a man himself, from the soil of Hawaiki. Tiki made the first man to look like himself and breathed into it in order to give it life. This event is re-enacted every time a child grows in a woman’s womb, so according to myth, each Maori comes from Hawaiki (Orbell 13). The second myth is the myth of Tura, who has a special role in the initiation of childbirth. Tura teaches the people of Hawaiki how to use fire and sets in motion the birth cycle, thus establishing the human biological cycle and the customs relating to birth (Orbell 14). In these two myths, Hawaiki is the source of human life. This connection shows how valuable the myths of Hawaiki are to Maori cultural traditions.

The Bone People

Hulme creates a new language in The Bone People. The book appears as a hybrid of cultures, just like Hulme’s life. She is part-Maori, part-Pakeha (European) as is her character Kerewin Holmes. Kerewin speaks in English mainly, but she, Joe, and Simon seem to converse in a language all of their own. As Simon does not speak, he signs to them while they speak to him in a mixture of English and Maori. “The language employed by Miss Hulme’s characters tends to range, back and forth, from the lyrical to the crude” (Kakutani 161). She not only ranges from lyrical to crude, but from English to Maori to Simon’s sign language. Hulme allows the reader a glimpse at Maori culture through her use of language and the foregrounding of Maori myths, which are the crux of Maori culture. Hulme blends the Pakeha and Maori cultures as well as myths through her language and use of the ancient myths of the Maori people.

Works Cited

  • Hulme, Keri. The Bone People. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.
  • Ihimaera, Witi. Maori. Wellington, New Zealand: A.R. Shearer, Government Printer, 1975.
  • Kakutani, Michiko. “The Bone People.” New York Times. 13 Nov. 1985, C23. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Sharon K. Hall. Vol. 39. Detroit: Gale, 1986. 161-62.
  • Orbell, Margaret. Hawaiki: A New Approach to Maori Tradition. Christchurch, New Zealand: Griffin Press, 1985.

Works to Consult

  • Farca, Paula Anca. Identity in place : contemporary indigenous fiction by women writers in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. New York : Peter Lang, 2011.
  • Hunt, Alex and Bonnie Roos. Postcolonial green : environmental politics & world narratives. ed. Bonnie Roos & Alex Hunt. Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2010.
  • Morris, Holly. Uncommon waters : women write about fishing. ed. Holly Morris. Seattle: Seal Press, 1998.
  • Nasta, Susheila. Writing across worlds : contemporary writers talk. ed Susheila Nasta. London ; New York : Routledge, 2004.
  • Stachurski, Christina. Reading Pakeha? : fiction and identity in Aotearoa New Zealand. New York : Rodopi 2009.

Author: Kelly Smith, Fall 1997
Last edited: May 2017

Write A Comment