NZ Listener reviews Dear Oliver


Linda Herrick at NZ Listener reviews Peter Wells’ memoir Dear Oliver:

‘Peter Wells’ haunting new book, Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pākehā History, will trigger odd little memories for many New Zealanders who grew up during the 1950s and 60s. Rituals were woven into the fabric of life: quality china brought out for ladies’ afternoon teas; biscuit tins always filled with home baking; housewives judged by the cleanliness of their homes. The social anxiety, especially for women, was exhausting.
These were also times of unspoken family histories, class divisions, religious prejudice, racism and the blot of dependency on alcohol and sedatives.
But unlike today’s “speed is all” emails, people did write to each other – a lot. Wells opens his narrative by musing upon an antiquity: the handwritten letter, the “slow communication” that has been part of his family’s dynamic for generations.
He is a rebel; he still writes letters. And letters are the building blocks of this story. When Wells’s mother, Bess, moved out of her Auckland home at the age of 92, he found, stashed all over the place, correspondence from various relatives, dating back to the 1890s. Each letter offered a story, however mundane.
The idea for the blend of social and personal history that is Dear Oliver came years after Bess’s move into a care home in Napier, when he started reading the letters and thinking about the lives of their writers.
Wells describes it as “the story of an ordinary Pākehā family”, but he is also defining the heritage of many Pākehā families whose ancestors made the journey from Britain in an effort to escape poverty.’
Read the full review here.