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Trials and Tribulations: Trauma in Margaret Mahy’s Young Adult Fiction

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posted on 2022-04-12, 19:23 authored by Yuanyuan Liang

As New Zealand’s most celebrated children's writer, Margaret Mahy is renowned for her warm-hearted authorial persona and playful writing style. Beneath her entertaining narrative tone, however, Mahy deals with the darker realities of everyday life. This thesis argues that trauma is a key feature of Mahy’s Young Adult fiction.

Mahy’s characters suffer various traumatic events, ranging from situations related to death (bereavement, murder, suicide) to interpersonal violence (abduction, abuse, bullying). They are also subject to more common traumatic conditions, such as excessive parental expectations, living in a broken family, and sibling rivalry. Many of Mahy’s novels are so rife with trauma that not only the main characters, but also their relatives and even enemies are traumatised. While a few critics have noticed the importance of trauma in Mahy’s YA texts, they mainly discuss trauma’s impact on the development of adolescent identity or the major characters’ individual psychological issues. My study takes it further by looking at how the protagonists and other supporting characters work together to weave an intricate web of trauma. I will also pay attention to how Mahy’s narrative techniques reflect her complex conceptualisation of trauma.

The prevalence of traumatised figures in Mahy’s books suggests a possibility of trauma’s communicability, which is the focus of my first and second chapter. The opening chapter examines Mahy’s treatment of intergenerational trauma, and more specifically, how trauma is transmitted vertically from grand-parental figures to the youngest generation. In the second chapter, I move on to investigate a pattern which I call “intersecting trauma”: the horizontal connectedness of trauma between contemporaries within a larger, communal body. The third chapter continues to expand the scope, looking at the representation of New Zealand’s historical trauma through a postcolonial ecocritical lens. My last chapter shifts from the domestic to the international political arena, examining Mahy’s reflection of disastrous events which took place in more recent global history. The four chapters together show the depth and complexity of Mahy’s treatment of trauma in her YA fiction.

Many of Mahy’s novels contain fantastical elements, and all her books that are primarily concerned with collective trauma are works of fantasy. While the choice of the genre of fantasy enables young readers to gain knowledge of trauma in a safe, distanced realm, Mahy never over-relied on supernatural intervention as a resolution. Consistently, she championed the more realistic way to work through trauma via narrative. With her playful and thoughtful writing style, Mahy seeks to represent trauma in a way that is both artistic and edifying. Her delicate handling of the dark subject not only allows us to acquire moral lessons without feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of trauma, it also preserves us from the illusion of a false world in which all problems of violence can be tackled by the fantastical. All in all, it is storytelling that serves as the ritual of exorcism in the everyday life and helps us dispel the ghost of trauma.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

English Literature

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

1 Pure basic research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre, Media Studies and Art History


Jackson, Anna; Miles, Geoff