As a result of two world wars, thousands of children from Britain were sent to live in Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia and new Zealand. While many of these children were war orphans, many were not. Their parents merely decided to send them away in the hopes that they would have a better life. About 750 children ended up in New Zealand.
William Taylor’s ironically titled novel Land of Milk and Honey follows the fortunes of one such boy, Jake Neill, aged 14. When he arrives with his younger sister, Janice, in Wellington in 1947 he is told he’s ‘lucky’ because he’s going to be shipped off to a farm where he’ll have access to “milk and butter and cream and eggs. Fresh meat.” Jake isn’t actually an orphan; his mother has been killed in an air raid and his father has lost a leg and doesn’t feel able to look after his children.
Jake’s first trauma comes when he is separated from his sister. While Jake knows he is bound for the Pearson farm, the authorities don’t know where they are sending Janice and Jake leaves her without knowing whether or not he will ever see her again. Turns out, this is the least of his worries.
The Pearsons – mother, father and 16-year-old son, Darcy, are about as far away from warm and welcoming as you can get. It doesn’t take him long to figure out that he’s nothing more than slave labour and worse, that Darcy is a sadist. The evidence comes early on when Darcy tortures a calf taunting Jake by saying: “Useless bastard. Look….See its nuts? Deserves everything it’s getting.” Darcy proceeds to slowly twist the calf’s leg until it cries out.
Darcy’s cruelty escalates and I found some of the scenes almost impossible to read about. I seriously felt sick to my stomach, but in that way where I knew I was reading something authentic not gratuitous.
William Taylor is a well-known and prolific New Zealand author. He’s written over 30 novels, including books for adults and children. Land of Milk and Honey, while not easy to read, should be read. It is a novel that deals with themes like resilience and determination which should resonate with its readers. Jake’s time on the Pearson farm is difficult to read about, but he is a remarkable character and his story reminds us of how it is possible to overcome tremendous odds.