The People Before: summary and analysis

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Maurice Shadbolt is a well known New Zealand writer whose works are popular with readers even today. His stories are all based in New Zealand and seek to interpret the various influences that have gone into the making of the country. The conflict between the Europeans and the Maori find frequent resonance in his works.

Relevance of the Title

“The people before”, though not in the story as characters, influence much of the story and the attitude of the characters. The father has no time to think of them except when Jim displays the greenstone adzes. Even then the father does not relate to the “people before”; his thought is only about how much they could be worth. The people before were so intimately connected to the land that they have carried the old man to the spot where he was born so that he could see it one more time before dying. The narrator’s father on the other hand frequently talks of selling the farm when the going gets tough. The land is just something that he owns and puts to work.


The story is about an unnamed family that buys a farm that has not been prosperous. The father has always been keen on owning land as he has seen his father work as a sharemilker on other people’s land. There are two boys in the family. The elder one is rather like his father who enjoys the outdoors and the hard work of the farm. Jim, the younger one is rather weak and he prefers to be inside with his mother. The father farms only the flat land leaving the hills beyond, which were his, to run wild. Jim and his brother go wandering on Sundays. Jim explores the caves near the river and finds some jade adzes inside. Once he finds a human skull too which must have belonged to a Maori who had lived there long ago. When the father sees the adzes, he wonders only about how much they could be worth.

The Depression is soon on them and the father finds farming less profitable now. He wonders about selling the land and moving but plods on. One day, a group of Maori arrive there. They have brought with them an old man who had been born on the hill behind long ago. He is close to death and desires to see once again the land of his birth. The father cannot comprehend why anyone would want to do that. Jim is however impressed and accompanies them to the hill. When he comes back he tells the family how the Maoris had lived there for generations until the whites came and drove them away. The father now begins to understand what land means to some people.

The boys go away to WW II. The father sells the farm and moves to closer to the town. When the war is over, the boys return. Jim goes to the University while his brother joins the father on the farm. Once when discussing the War, the elder brother says that he had no fond memories to focus on in the battlefield but Jim says that for him, the old farm was just that, a place of happy returns. His bother feels jealous about Jim’s happy memories.


The story is about a family that moves into a farm that they buy cheap as it has not been productive. For the father owning land had been a compulsion as his father had not owned land but worked as a laborer. Of the two boys in the family, the older one, who is the narrator, is the outdoorsy kind, much like the father. The younger boy is not sturdy and he prefers the company of his mother and spends more time inside the house. It’s hard work milking the herd and the father cultivates only the flat land considering the hills behind a nuisance. Jim and his elder brother roam the countryside exploring caves on Sundays. Once, Jim finds greenstones adzes and also a human skull in the caves. He leaves the skull behind but brings home the adzes. The boys surmise that at some time Maoris must have inhabited those parts. When the father sees the adzes later his only thought is how much they could be worth. He does not consider the possibility of the land having belonged to the Maoris.

When the Depression is on them, the father finds the farm to be less profitable and he considers the prospect of setting it and moving. He stays on, not because any special love he feels for the land but because he has invested money and labor on it. One day a group of Maoris visit the farm. They carry with them, in a litter, an old man. They say that, the old man, a tribe elder was born on the hills behind the farm when the land belonged to the Maoris. He wishes now, when he is close to death, to see the place of his birth once again. The father is thoroughly perplexed but Jim is understanding and offers them the greenstone adzes which he believes belonged to the tribe. The Maoris depart to the hills with the old man. Jim goes with them. Sometime during the night the old man dies and his people bury him on the mountain. Jim comes home with an account of how the Maoris lived in the area until the whites came in and defeated them. But they still consider this land to be their home. The father now begins to comprehend what land means to some people.

The boys go to the Second World War. The father sells the farm and moves closer to the cities. The boys return after war and Jim leaves for the University while the older boy joins his father on their new farm. Once during a discussion about coping with war, the elder brother says he had no happy memories to focus on during war. But Jim says, for him, their old farm was Te Wahiokoahoki, the place of happy return. The brother feels jealous that he could never feel that way.

Questions to think and reflect

1  Describe the early farm after the father bought it ‘for a song’. Who were the ‘people   before’?

2  What do we get to know about the father’s character and that of the mother and the   two boys?

Find some lines to quote which typify each character.

3  Towards the end of part 1, Jim goes to the abandoned hill area. He finds a cave with   adzes and also a human skull. What is the father’s attitude to the adzes? What does   the author hint at now about ‘the people before’?

4  This part opens with a reference to the end of the depression. What year is that,   roughly?

5  In the first pages of this section explain how the father’s view of the land and his   work has changed.

6  On p 206 the mother says “perhaps they’ve got happy memories of this place”. After   reading  Part 2, how does this statement seem ironic?

7  Describe why the Maori family have come to the farm.

8  Re-read the last ten lines of part 2. Why does the son think his father might have said   or felt something else?

9  What action has completely astounded the father?

10  In what way have the brothers remained the same?

11  Re-read the conclusion to the story. Why does the older brother think that Jim has   ‘beaten’ him?

General questions

1  To how many people does the title ‘the people before’ apply?

2  What differences in values do various owners of the land have?

3  What do you get to know about New Zealand farm life in the 1930’s?


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