'Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate from Norfolk to New Zealand in search of new beginnings and prosperity. But the harsh land near Christchurch threatens to destroy them almost before they begin. When Joseph finds gold in the creek he is seized by a rapturous obsession with the voluptuous riches awaiting him in the deep earth. Abandoning his farm and his family, he sets off alone for the new gold-fields over the Southern Alps. a moral wilderness where many others, under the seductive dreams of 'the colour', are violently rushing to their destinies...'
New Zealand and the gold rush all seemed so distant and remote, and did I really want to know more because somehow I just wasn't getting the excitement of the novel at all. When it reached the point of traversing the Southern Alps to reach the gold fields...well to be honest, I couldn't be bothered.
Now of course I am as obsessed as Joseph about all things gold, especially since I have seen a replica of the Hon. Roddy Nugget..
Exhibited in a tiny museum at Ross, the replica of the largest piece of gold found in New Zealand. The original changed hands several times, even raising funds for the local hospital in a raffle, before eventually being presented to King George V as a Coronation gift. Rather embarrassingly it would seem this priceless treasure was then melted down in order to gild some teacups, which Buckingham Palace now seem to have lost along with any record of the original gift.
Joseph Blackstone would have thought he had died and gone to heaven had he discovered the Hon. Roddy and no way would he have given it to the Royals.
My second sight of New Zealand, after that view of the distant coast and the long white cloud, had been those very same Southern Alps as I flew towards Christchurch...
And reading The Colour whilst travelling South Island and cycling for four days through the vast gold trail lands of Otago...
and pitching my modern, waterproof, lightweight igloo tent...
...right next to Cascade creek on the west coast (lots of eels, no gold)...
and then travelling to Hokitika before camping at Kaniere (pronounced Canary like the bird I am reliably informed)....well I doubt any book could have held me in its grasp more tenaciously.
...and sand flies love the rain and form up in battalions to attack.
But all was not lost. For heaven's sake, here I am slap bang in the middle of the gold rush land after all.
I'd spray my tent to kill the little blighters and then snuggle down in my down sleeping bag on my comfy mattress, switch on my Kindle in the dark, and all the terrors of the night, with its anonymous animal-like scratchy noises and the promise of the inevitable visit to the distant long-drop would dissipate.
I would read of the hardships of life for the Blackstones, and their flimsy cob house with its calico walls offering little protection from the elements, and there I was...well none of it was hard to imagine.
The Colour became book as lived experience and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
What Harriet Blackstone would have given for a set of Kathmandu stripy thermal leggings like mine, because if there is one thing New Zealand excels in it is The Elements. Lathered in Factor 50 by day to protect from sunburn, and then a layer of citronella to deny access to the sand flies, and then wrapping up warm for the chilly nights...and then there was the wind, often whipping up out of nowhere. And I'd be swapping from shorts into fleecy trousers and waterproofs, and I could only but wonder how the original gold prospectors coped under canvas, especially the women among them.
Infected by gold fever after a chance find, Joseph's obsession is wonderfully wrought by Rose Tremain, and when you see the sheer vastness of the landscape it isn't hard to sense the dilemma the diggers must have felt as they tried to decide where to pitch their 72 sq.ft claim... here...or maybe over there...or further up the valley. Once pitched it can't be moved and that little piece of land will be worked to destruction either holding a fortune or nought.
The diggings are still evident, and the little museums in towns along the way are full of original artefacts and photos which all brought the book to life, etching this read firmly in my mind like no other.
There will be travails a-plenty for Joseph and Harriet and a few surprises for the reader along the way, along with the realisation that novels about the New Zealand gold rush, thinking about The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and another that I read whilst travelling, Ribbons of Grace by Maxine Alterio, of necessity are re-telling this same small chunk of history so there will inevitably be similarities.That said I have enjoyed each and every one of them, so if you are planning to travel to South Island it's worth checking out all three, but even better to read them whilst you are there and seeing it for real.
It all makes me think about the power of the novel to come to life in this way...when the narrative and the imagination meet with the reality.
I wonder if there are other novels set in other countries that may have done this for you too...
And any more Rose Tremain fans out there. I've written about one of her books on here Trespass, but hadn't read any others until now, however I was so taken with The Colour that I immediately splashed out on Restoration for my next Kindle read and am loving it.