25 Sep 2009
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The life story of a woman who helped shape New Zealand history but went largely unrecognised during her lifetime has been published by Canterbury University Press.
Looking for Answers: A life of Elsie Locke is a compelling biography of a writer and activist who campaigned for birth control, women’s rights, nuclear disarmament, social justice and the environment long before such causes were popular.
She wrote almost 40 books, including historical novels for children and social histories of New Zealand, plus numerous articles and School Journal stories. She won many awards for her writing over the years and in 1987 the University of Canterbury awarded Locke an Honorary Doctorate of Literature for her work in children’s literature and history.
Biographer Maureen Birchfield said she was invited to write the book by the Locke family because of the family connection through her parents, Connie and Albert Birchfield, who were friends and fellow members of the Communist Party from the 1930s to mid-1950s. She said she accepted because of her “conviction that this was a very important life story that needed to be written”.
“I thought Elsie was a pretty impressive person before I began discovering more about her through my research. Then the more I discovered the more admiring of her I became.”
Ms Birchfield said had Locke been alive to see the biography, she probably would have been embarrassed by it, being a private and modest person. It reveals the central role Locke played in the organisations she was involved in.
“She always downplayed her involvement and gave centre stage to other people rather than herself. She liked to be called ‘ordinary’ but she really was extraordinary and a pioneer in many ways.”
Ms Birchfield said because Locke was so multi-dimensional in her interests her story would appeal to a wide audience.
She said readers of Looking for Answers would learn about a “low profile but very important New Zealander and through her about the social and political scene in New Zealand from the 1930s Depression to the 21st century”.
“It is also an inspiring story of how an ‘ordinary’ working class woman can achieve so much at grass-roots level.”
Ms Birchfield spent five years researching and writing the book incorporating much of Locke’s unfinished memoir. She also drew on primary sources such as minutes of Communist Party meetings, personal letters, archives of organisations and movements, articles in long-forgotten journals, and memories and insights from Locke’s family and friends.She has also incorporated declassified information, released by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service “at the eleventh hour”.
Looking for Answers: A Life of Elsie Locke was launched on 18 September at a function hosted by Elsie’s son, Green Party MP Keith Locke, at the Grand Hall at Parliament.Associate Professor of History, Charlotte Macdonald from Victoria University of Wellington, a specialist in New Zealand and women’s history, launched the book. The book will also be launched in Christchurch on 7 October at the Great Hall of the Arts Centre by Dr Len Richardson and in Auckland on 30 October at the Women’s Bookshop in Ponsonby.The book has been published with the support of Creative New Zealand and the New Zealand History Research Trust Fund of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.