Falter Tom and the Water Boy (1959)

Maurice Duggan was an important figure in New Zealand’s mid-century literary scene, known mostly for short stories. Falter Tom and the Water Boy was his one children’s novel.

Falter Tom is an old sailor, nick-named for his game leg (Duggan himself lost a leg in early adulthood), who lives in a cabin in a small town by the sea. He knows people well enough to say hello to and he tells the local boys tall tales of life at sea, but nobody really knows him.

One day he encounters a “water boy” by the shore, a beautiful pale-green figure with copper colored hair, who appears to be an adolescent but is in fact ageless. Falter Tom learns from him how to live and breathe in the water. The two travel the oceans together for a year, at the end of which Falter Tom must decide whether to return home to his life on land or stay in the ocean forever. He choses eternal life with the water boy, and the two swim away together joyfully.

This book has good moments, such as when Falter Tom must look for an amulet that is “a part of a fish and a piece of gold kept for luck.” He finds an old whale tooth pendant set in gold that he used to wear, but worries that it won’t work because a whale isn’t a fish. It turns out to be a splendid choice, though, since whales spend their life in the sea. But in between the interesting bits there is far too much description. The writing is beautiful, but things just move along too slow.

Maurice Duggan, 1961

This is also, from a certain perspective, a rather sad book, because it reads like it was written by a closeted gay man. (Maybe I’m wrong; maybe it’s usual for straight male authors to write about running away forever to an idyllic life with a beautiful young man.)

8 thoughts on “Falter Tom and the Water Boy (1959)

      1. Cassandra

        Also I always thought it was called Father Tom not Falter Tom – odd how those things get twisted round in my head!


      2. mlwilson

        Any other NZ authors I should try, who were writing kids’ books before 1975? I’ve only read this one and The Runaway Settlers.


  1. Cassandra

    I remember The Runaway Settlers, it’s a great book! 1975 just rules out Joy Cowley, I think she was writing from the 80s onwards. But Joan de Hamel was around before then – try X marks the Spot. A favourite of mine is Katy One Summer, 1969, by Shona McRae – it’s a really beautiful book (I suppose a picture book, technically) following a day in the life of a three year old farm girl.


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