At Hiruharama

by

Penelope Fitzgerald

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At Hiruharama Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mr. Tanner and his family have decided to leave New Zealand, and he’s excited to explain (to an unseen character) how they ended up with a lawyer in the family who could handle the legal business of selling their property. To explain where the lawyer came from, Mr. Tanner has to tell the story of his grandfather, Tanner. In the flashback that Mr. Tanner narrates (which lasts for the rest of the story), his grandfather, Tanner, is an orphan from Stamford, England. He’s sent to live with a well-to-do family in Auckland, New Zealand, ostensibly to be an apprentice, but when he arrives, he cleans knives, attends to the horses, chops wood, serves food, and is treated like a servant.
Fitzgerald begins “At Hiruharama” by establishing a frame narrative, or a story within a story. In this case, Mr. Tanner tells the story of his grandfather, Tanner. Narrating the story as a frame story—instead of simply telling Tanner’s story without Mr. Tanner narrating—allows Fitzgerald to highlight the theme of upward mobility by telling a multi-generational tale that shows how Tanner’s humble beginnings in New Zealand eventually led to a lawyer in the family and to Mr. Tanner’s prosperity decades later.
Themes
Upward Mobility and Colonialism Theme Icon
Quotes
While running an errand to a dry goods store, Tanner meets Kitty, who also came to New Zealand from England. Like Tanner, she thought she would be a governess, but the family that employs her also treats her as a servant. A few weeks later, at a Methodist social, Tanner asks Kitty to wait for three years while he saves money so they can marry. Kitty agrees and tells Tanner he should write to his sister to tell her their plans. When Tanner at first demurs and then says that he’ll think it over, Kitty realizes he can’t read or write. 
Tanner and Kitty both come from humble beginnings and come to New Zealand to try to find a better life for themselves. When the two hit it off, Kitty faces a choice. Should she accept the proposal of someone who cannot read or write and will need three years to save enough money to marry, or should she wait for a “better” option to come along? Kitty ultimately accepts Tanner’s proposal because she finds intrinsic value in who Tanner is as a person, apart from his social station, and she places more value on Tanner’s personal qualities than his status.
Themes
Value and Perception Theme Icon
Years later, Kitty and Tanner find a remote country place where they start to build their lives together. They don’t even have to buy their plot of land; because it’s so isolated, the previous tenant has abandoned it. But the plot comes with a three-room house replete with a bed, a stove, and a back room where they can store vegetables. Even more valuable, the land comes with a pipe that gives constant clear water from an underground well. Tanner and Kitty grow root vegetables and keep 200 chickens and a few pigs.
Kitty and Tanner take one of the first steps on their journey to upward mobility when they acquire their own homestead and outfit it with chickens and pigs. What’s more, the abandoned homestead has a standpipe that gives constant, clear water. No matter how much money one spends on a well, the story suggests, it could still give contaminated water. The fact that the abandoned homestead has a perfect well makes it a priceless discovery, showing how much value can be found in some of the most overlooked and neglected places.
Themes
Value and Perception Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Colonialism Theme Icon
Quotes
About two years later, Kitty tells Tanner that she’s pregnant. Tanner drives into the nearest town, Awanui, to meet with the doctor. The doctor tells Tanner that he shouldn’t ask him if his wife will have twins, as there’s no way to know beforehand. The doctor asks if there is anyone nearby who might be able to help Tanner while his wife is “laid up,” and Tanner says their nearest neighbor is a man named Brinkman. Brinkman, Tanner says, often complains about the loneliness of his life. The doctor says that Brinkman sounds like “a crank,” and Tanner says he would call Brinkman “a dreamer.” The doctor then tells Tanner that there is no need for Kitty to come see him, and when she goes into labor, Tanner will have to send for him (the doctor), though he’s often no longer needed by the time he arrives. 
When Kitty becomes pregnant, Tanner turns to the community for help, specifically to the doctor in Awanui. The doctor offers to help, but in a way that seems reluctant when he says that there’s no need for Kitty to visit beforehand—he also suggests that he’s often no longer needed by the time he shows up to deliver a baby. While he does help Tanner prepare for Kitty’s birth, he is not the model of a perfect, attentive doctor. His comment about twins foreshadows the later birth scene. When the doctor says that Brinkman seems like “a crank,” Tanner responds by saying that he’s a dreamer, showing again Tanner’s generosity and his tendency to look for value in overlooked and neglected places.
Themes
Value and Perception Theme Icon
Community Theme Icon
Quotes
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Tanner leaves the doctor’s office and goes to the post office, where he writes a letter to his sister. In the present, Mr. Tanner thinks that, upon learning that Tanner couldn’t read, Kitty said she wouldn’t marry him until he learned how. In the letter, Tanner relays news about the child soon to be born and asks his sister to send a book on childbirth. He then goes to the house of a man named Parrish, who keeps racing pigeons. Tanner asks to borrow two of the birds so he can send a message to the doctor when Kitty is in labor. Parrish says that because Tanner’s house is in line with the route his pigeons normally fly, he’s happy to help.
When Kitty discovers that Tanner cannot read, Mr. Tanner surmises that instead of rejecting his proposal, Kitty stipulated that she wouldn’t marry him unless he learned. Not only does Kitty see the intrinsic value in who Tanner is as a person, but she becomes a catalyst in Tanner’s path toward upward mobility by helping him learn to read. After leaving the doctor’s office, Tanner turns to other members of the community, who, like the doctor, help in imperfect but ultimately important ways. Parrish, for example, lends pigeons to Tanner, which will be instrumental in alerting the doctor when Kitty goes into labor. But before he does so, he makes sure to add that he is only lending them because Tanner lives on the route that the pigeons already fly.
Themes
Value and Perception Theme Icon
Community Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Colonialism Theme Icon
Quotes
More or less when they expected, Kitty goes into labor. Tanner uses the pigeons to send for the doctor and calculates that it will take him over two and a half hours to arrive. At six o’clock, Kitty is in bed “no better and no worse,” sweating from head to toe. She and Tanner hear someone coming down the road from the opposite direction of Awanui. When their closest neighbor, Brinkman, comes into their house, he continues “with the course of his thoughts, which were more real to him than the outside world’s commotion.” Brinkman comments to Tanner about the gray hairs he’s recently discovered on his head, and when Tanner tells him that Kitty is in labor, Brinkman responds by saying, “Then she won’t be cooking dinner this evening, then?” and makes no attempt to leave.
Parrish’s pigeons do exactly what Parrish promised they would, flying toward Awanui to fetch the doctor with little prompting from Tanner. When Brinkman arrives and makes himself at home without once offering to help or get out of the Tanners’ way, Tanner’s earlier assessment of him as “a dreamer” is shown to have been especially generous, underlining Tanner’s capacity to find value wherever he looks.
Themes
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Quotes
The doctor eventually drives up with his wife’s widowed sister, who used to be a nurse. Tanner comes out covered in blood and tells the doctor that he managed to deliver the baby. The doctor tells his sister-in-law that he’s going to look at the afterbirth, which Tanner initially threw away. He discovers that Tanner has made a crucial oversight: the afterbirth is actually a second child. Mr. Tanner interjects to clarify that the Tanners, his grandparents, would later go on to have nine more children, and one of their later sons would become his father.
Even though the doctor might have seemed reluctant to help at first, when he finally arrives, he brings reinforcements in the form of his sister-in-law who is, or was, a nurse. Even more importantly, he discovers that what Tanner mistakes as afterbirth is really a second child. The doctor’s discovery exemplifies the crucial role that community plays in the story, ultimately saving the Tanners and the second daughter from tragedy. The doctor does this by looking for value in the most unlikely place: the garbage.  
Themes
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Quotes
The doctor brings the second child into the kitchen. In the years after, the Tanners always keep a tinplate on the wall of their kitchen, bought at a hardware store with the saying “Throw Nothing Away” written on it. Mr. Tanner says this is the point he’s been trying to make: while nothing special happened in the life of the first child, he says, this second daughter grew up to be a lawyer with a firm in Wellington and “did very well.”
The story’s theme that value can be found in the most unlikely places is summed up by the tinplate the Tanners hang in their kitchen, instructing people to “Throw Nothing Away.” The message is further exemplified by the second daughter’s life; by becoming a lawyer, this second daughter helps fulfill the Tanners’ dreams of upward mobility. 
Themes
Value and Perception Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Colonialism Theme Icon
Quotes
Brinkman continues to sit at the table and smoke his pipe, thinking about the possibility that he might one day find someone who will marry him. In the meantime, he thinks, the Tanners will “have to serve dinner sometime.”
The story ends on a comical note, as Brinkman is still engrossed in his own thoughts while the rest of the house buzzes with the aftermath of the birth. While it can be tempting to write off Brinkman, like the doctor does, as “a crank,” or as someone too self-absorbed to form connections with other people, his place at the very end of the story reiterates the theme that value can be found wherever one looks. Brinkman becomes part of the community, then, by being just who he is—flawed and certainly imperfect, but still graciously and generously welcomed and accepted.   
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