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Red Rocks, Rachael King

April 13, 2013

Red Rocks Book blurb

“A boy is thrown into an adventure tinged with magic when he finds a sealskin in a cave in this exciting junior novel by an award-winning writer. While holidaying at his father’s house, Jake explores Wellington’s wild south coast, with its high cliffs, biting winds, and its fierce seals. When he stumbles upon a perfectly preserved sealskin, hidden in a crevice at Red Rocks, he’s compelled to take it home and hide it under his bed, setting off a chain of events that threatens to destroy his family. Red Rocks takes the Celtic myth of the selkies, or seal people, and transplants it into the New Zealand landscape, throwing an ordinary boy into an adventure tinged with magic. With its beautiful writing and eerie atmosphere, junior readers will be thrilled and moved by this captivating story.” ~ from Fishpond 

“Jessie stared at him, hard. ‘It is not a story. It is real. Jake, if you have stolen a sealskin, then whoever it belongs to will be stuck in human form.’ Jake was surprised to see tears form in her eyes. ‘You must put it back.’ ‘But that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!’ said Jake. ‘Jake!’ Jessie shouted. ‘You must put it back.’ Jake has taken a sealskin from Red Rocks and hidden it under his bed, unlocking an ancient spell that threatens to destroy his family. Can he put things right, before it’s too late?” ~ from the back of the book

Red Rocks First Page

“Waves battered the beach, chattering to the stones as they receded. Jake stood still, watching the rocks, waiting for a movement. And there it was: a seal, with sleek, damp fur, launching itself into the water like a torpedo. He looked for it amongst the floating islands of kelp, thought he spotted it at first but no, there it was, further away. Its head surfaced and it rolled onto its back, raised one flipper as if in a wave and [-p.8] was gone.” (pp.7-8)

Ref: Rachael King (2012) Red Rocks. Random House: AucklandRed Rocks - Rachael King

Themes in the novel


Possible directions for study/questions to apply to Red Rocks

There were a couple of things that struck me about this novel. Consider:

The novel demands only a ‘realist’ reading until the final pages. By this I mean that: The reader is invited to suspect a supernatural story is taking place behind scenes, but this is only confirmed at the end of the novel. Possible (realist) explanations are consistently suggested (by having the protagonist wake up and wonder if he dreamed it, for example; or by having adults provide (incorrect) but plausible explanations for things), but the reader is invited to see through this reality from the beginning…

  • How is the reader invited to see through ‘reality’ to the supernatural explanation of events (i.e., the Selkie legend)? Consider, for example, Jake’s first meeting with Jessie (p.43) and her apparent knowledge of his fall into the water (witnessed only by a seal, p.37). The prior meeting between the two (while Jessie was in her seal form) is hinted at by Ted with a slip of the tongue (the first of many): “‘Ah, she’s a shy one, that one,’ said Ted. ‘Cheeky too, as you’ve seen.’ He coughed. ‘Can see.'” (p.43). Why hint at the supernatural, but not reveal it from the start?
  • How could this story have been told differently? (For example, What if the supernatural elements of the tale were revealed right from the start?)
  • What qualities of character make Jake able to see the (supernatural) truth of things (when adults like his Dad can’t)? In what other ways does Jake’s character shape this story? Does his character change during the course of the story?
  • Does the novel invite consideration of the concept of ‘truth’? …by creating this tension between the supernatural and the real (and refusing to confirm the existence of the supernatural for the reader), for example? (I think it does)
  • How is ‘story’, as a concept, treated in the novel? Consider Jake’s discussion about the Selkie legend and believing in things (pp.122-130).
  • Why have Jake’s father retell the Selkie legend (pp.122-130)? I think it works to have the reader ask – as Bob asks (in his Bobs Books Blog) – Will the legend be repeated?! Inviting the reader to wonder this leaves the reader uncertain of the ending (of course), but it also has the reader engage with the legend, …so why have readers engage with old legends in this way? Are legends still meaningful and useful to modern audiences? In what way?

I haven’t developed this thought in any particular direction yet, but I am interested in the character of the old man (Ted). Why this character? Why a lonely old guy living in an isolated cottage? What does such a character add to the story? When I first encountered him (Ted), I was put in mind of The Loblolly Boy (James Norcliffe), which relies on a similar character for the telling of its tale….

There are a couple of more familiar THEMES presented by Red Rocks as well. For example:

  • Bullying / victimhood: early on in the novel, the protagonist, Jake, thinks about how he is being bullied at home in Auckland (pp.30-31) after failing to stand up to two older boys who are abusing a local dog (p.28-31). Jake explains that one of the reasons he is bullied in Auckland is that he “live[s] in a make-believe world” (p.31), but this ability to live in a world of make-believe proves to be what enables him to save the day (and his father) in their encounter with the Selkies. As Jake learns about the Selkies and works out how to rescue his father from the Selkie spell (and Cora), he also develops the courage to stand up to the two boys who bully him in Wellington (stealing his bike, hurting Jake and also abusing a local dog). Courage, truth, story and imagination are intertwined in this way… and connect with mankind’s relationship with animals at the same time….
  • Mankind’s relationship with animals: does this novel invite us to examine mankind’s relationship to animals? (I think it does: much is made of the seals’ eyes in this novel (and both the Selkie’s humanity and their animal nature is revealed through their eyes). Jake’s growth is in part evidenced by his willingness to stand up to the two bullies when they threaten a seal (actually his friend, Jessie).) Consider: Ted’s story (pp.175-185) and his stance on how the Selkie Alice hurt him: “I hated myself then. It was all my fault. I’d unwittingly trapped Alice and now I was alone and my children motherless. She was a wild beast that should never have been tamed, and I blamed her for attacking me no more than I would blame a caged lion that turned on its trainer.” (p.185) Consider also Jake’s final encounter with the dog, Sam: “Sam’s tongue was hanging out and he was looking at Jake expectantly. What was going on behind those soft eyes? Suddenly, Jake got the certain feeling the dog had forgiven him, that they understood each other. After all, they’d both been on the receiving end of the bullying and survived. And Jake stood up to the boys eventually. Maybe he’d even be able to stand up to the bullies at school next term. He certainly felt ready for them.” (p.242)
  • Home / family: the Selkie legend is premised on loneliness and the desire for family, home, and love. This is something that has been complicated for the protagonist, Jake, by his parents divorce. In what ways are the concepts of ‘home’ and ‘family’ explored in this novel? How are they presented? How does the protagonist’s attitude towards home and family change during the novel? Consider the following excerpts:

“He wished he could live here, go to school in Wellington, but it was complicated, because he also wanted to live with his mother, and it just wasn’t possible to have both his parents in the same house. Besides, if Dad had a new girlfriend, there might not be many nights like this left, just the two of them. He had to savour this moment because what if Cara moved in? What if they had a baby? It was bad enough that he had to share his mum with Davey and Greg. He didn’t want to have it happen all over again with Dad.” (p.121)

When Jake makes to return the sealskin to the cave he found it in, he has a moment of two of doubt. Touching the skin and breathing its smell, “It was as if Cara was all around him; he felt her breath in his ear, and his heart suddenly swelled with warmth for her. A thought jolted him: what on earth was he doing? Returning the skin to the cave banishing Cara from their lives forever – is that really what he wanted? If he kept it here, hidden in the little boat, then his dad would be happy. He had seen the light in his face when she was around. And Cara could be like another mother for Jake – together, they could be a family. Wouldn’t that be nice? / Suddenly he thought he felt the skin move, and he tore his hand away. In that very moment, another vision popped into his dad: Jessie’s face, telling him to be brave, and then – oddly, for he hadn’t thought of him much – his brother Davey. There was already a real family waiting for him back in Auckland: his mother, Greg, and his little brother. He and Dad were a real family too, in their own way, no matter what. Keeping Cara bound to them would not make them any [-p.201] more of a family than they already were. In fact, when she was around, Jake was shut out.” (pp.200-201)

“Jake turned and looked back at the little cottage, at his father’s writing shed, with its boarded-up window, peeking over the top. He never knew where Dad would be living each time he came; he moved around a lot. He hoped it would be this place, but for all he knew it could be miles away. …He had learned not to get too attached to his father’s [-p.244] houses. He hoped Dad wouldn’t be too lonely without him, but he didn’t know how to say it out loud.” (pp.243-244)

Texts that invite comparison

Perhaps any novel that treats with the above themes:

Mankind’s relationships with animals and the natural world (Consider also the exchange between King and author Philippa Werry about the use of Red Rocks as a setting – and King’s inclusion of fishing in this now protected area (; Des Hunt’s work, for example?

Bullying; I’m thinking of VM Jones’ fiction, but bullying has been a pretty common theme of children’s literature…

The modern shape of home and family; again, VM Jones’ fiction… oh and a million others

James Norcliffe’s The Loblolly Boy (in terms of the afore-mentioned use of this isolated-old-man-by-the-sea character)

How to use this blog

Mindmaps help me think critically.  They help me see the links between things and plot a course through all the observations and questions that a text provokes when I read it ‘as a text.’  This blog is a mindmap of sorts; full of random thoughts and relevant-seeming quotations or ideas.

  • There is a tag cloud to the right of the blog, which shows the topics I am exploring as ‘tags.’
  • You can also use the search bar at the bottom of the page to see if a particular word/book/author/theme is mentioned.
  • I have a section titled ‘Blog Notes’ in which I explain my blogging style.
  • I have a ‘Literary Resources’ section which includes general ideas on literature and its study as well as the questions I apply to any text I study.
  • These questions (eg. Character Questions) may be useful to any other reader wishing to look at this text differently (refer to very early on in the blogging history of this section).
  • I absolutely welcome discussion: comments, suggestions, ideas, criticisms… please add them!

King’s Red Rocks: a History

Awards won (not for Red Rocks (2012), but by King in her literary career):

  • Lilian Ida Smith Award 2005/ 2006.
  • Hubert Church Award 2007 for Best First Book of Fiction, Montana Book Awards for The Sound of Butterflies.
  • Ursula Bethell Residency 2008 in Creative Writing (Canterbury University).
  • Long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin award 2010.

Publishing History:

Classed as ‘children’s/teenage general fiction’ and published by Random House, Red Rocks was only published last year so there isn’t much of a history (in terms of criticism, at least; King does explain how the story came to her on her own website).

Bibliography of secondary literature:

  • Nothing as yet … except:
  • Random House Teachers’ Resource Kit (freely available download)
  • There are also interviews and reviews around the place, but little academic research has been applied to King’s work as yet (31 March 2013).

Author information: