Helen McNeil receives 2018 Bert Roth Award

We're excited to announce that Helen McNeil is the recipient of the 2018 Bert Roth Award for her book A Striking Truth which was published by Cloud Ink Press in 2017. The annual award is for the best contribution to the field of New Zealand labour history.

Helen grew up in Kawerau, a town which owes its existence, beginning in 1953, to the Tasman Pulp and Paper Company. As she explains in this essay for The Spinoff, the Company ‘looked after its 2000-odd workers, their families and their town’. Her novel A Striking Truth explores how this changed in 1986, when Tasman became Fletcher-Challenge, New Zealand’s first multi-national.

The plot is fast-moving. With a large cast of vivid and convincing characters, telling their stories in voices that carry class, ethnicity and gender, Helen details the 86-day strike (lockout according to the unions), which ‘almost killed the town’ in 1986.

It’s a great read. The locals are fictional, but most outsiders, unions and bosses, are recognisable; their first names have not been changed. Although the details of work at the mill and the impact of the strike do locate the reader’s sympathies, this is not a simplistic tale of goodies and baddies. The characters struggle with the baggage they bring, the commitments they have made, the loyalties they have forged, and the betrayals they must survive, as they are forced to come to terms with changes they have so little power over.

The male-dominated mill and union are strong features of the book, but equal attention is given to family support roles during the strike, particularly by women, and private households, the school, library and marae are central to the plot. With a divide and rule public relations campaign, the company moved to break the power of the Pulp and Paper Workers’ Union, revealing the deep inequalities between capital and working-class families. In 1986, it was a sign of times to come.

Judges Cybèle Locke, Claire-Louise McCurdy and Ross Webb awarded the prize to Helen McNeil for connecting the personal and the political in her novel. She has created a highly readable and very accessible study of a period of dramatic change in the economy and labour relations, the outcomes of which continue to impact our lives.

Visit Helen's author website here.