Historical YA – Sleeps Standing: A Story of the Battle of Ōrākau by Witi Ihimaera with Hēmi Kelly


“Both fiction and fact, this fascinating book is a kaleidoscopic exploration of the Battle of Ōrākau.

During three days in 1864, 300 Māori men, women and children fought an Imperial army and captured the imagination of the world. The battle marked the end of the Land Wars in the Waikato and resulted in vast tracts of land being confiscated for European settlement. Instead of following the usual standpoint of the victors, this book takes a Māori perspective. It is centred around Witi Ihimaera’s moving novella, Sleeps Standing, which views the battle through the eyes of a 16-year-old boy named Moetū.

Alongside the novella are non-fiction narratives from Māori eyewitnesses, together with images and a Māori translation by Hēmi Kelly, further giving voice to and illuminating the people who tried to protect their culture and land.”

Sleeps Standing: A Story of the Battle of Ōrākau by Witi Ihimaera with Hēmi Kelly

Published: August 28th 2017 by Random House NZ

Source: Library


I’ve been interested in picking up more of Ihimaera’s books ever since I read The Whale Rider. The oral storytelling tradition is a captivating thread throughout this book too. I hope an audiobook is released in the future. Both the English and the Māori translation of the story is included side by side in this edition.

Ihimaera’s retelling of this story takes place in both the present day as well as the past.

In the present, the story follows Simon who is one of the descendants of the battle. As a white passing Māori person living in Australia, he feels partly estranged from his Māori heritage but he approaches his uncle about naming a child after Moetū, a hero from the Battle of Ōrākau. His uncle helps Simon see their people’s power through Moetū’s story.

It’s a vivid and engrossing tale, which centers the lives of the women and the children who played pivotal roles in the battle despite the losses of their loved ones. So much history is unexamined and often distorted from a colonial perspective, which is why this book is so important. The combination of historical young adult fiction, pictorial sources and the translations of different Māori first person accounts by Hēmi Kelly creates a much needed look at history from a Māori point of view.


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2 thoughts on “Historical YA – Sleeps Standing: A Story of the Battle of Ōrākau by Witi Ihimaera with Hēmi Kelly

  1. Oh my gosh! This sounds like such a fascinating and pretty unique read. I love the concept of having both translations side by side. So I guess the point is that it’s pretty historically accurate? I’ve been trying to learn more about the history of colonialism lately and this sounds like a really approachable text. I brought a couple books that turned out to be SUPER dense, and I struggle to follow all of the information.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Elements of the story are fact but some elements are re-imagined as historical fiction in the author’s retelling from a character’s perspective, but the reader gets to see these differences by reading the 3 different historical accounts at the end of the novella. It’s a very accessible read with a great preface too. Definitely recommended.

      Liked by 1 person

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