The traditional Maori culture has various roles and a hierarchical structure of learning -- Pai's circumstances break that role, not only for her character, but in asking other members of the village to do so as well (Vygotsky). Similarly, Bronfenbrenner's "Ecological" Theory takes the environment of the learner and moves outward -- from home to community to government to society to time. In the case of Pai; it was the constant interaction between the micro- and macro-ecological forces -- the movement both inward and outward, that eventually allowed her to transcend the structures of culture and find her own pathway. The closer the development towards the inner circle, the more traditional the tribe seemed to need to hold onto the past -- to organize their own way of being. This was partially to protect (Bronfenbrenner).
However, when looking at the story based on traditional and modern values, we can also see that there is a transition, a development if you will, that moves from birth through learning and adolescence to old age -- not just chronological, but in wisdom and social function. Pai, for instance, moves through stages like Erik Erickson's psycho-social template by loving and trusting unquestiongly, but is confused by the mixed messages she receives. When she finally realizes it is because of her gender, she is even more confused because there is something pulling at her -- something at once beyond the traditional but not really modern since it comes from a mystical past. Similarly, Grandfather Koro grows to learn that traditional values simply mean accepted values, and without constantly questioning and reevaluating those values, they mean nothing. Nanny Flowers, the traditional Earth Mother, thinks very little about tradition, but is just as happy changing with the flow of events. Uncle Rawiri, although grounded in tradition, still breaks to teach Pai -- ironically, breaking tradition in teaching a girl, but teaching traditional skills. Pai's father, Porourangi, lacks trust in his own culture but disdains tradition because he does not seem to fit in. It is the psycho-social growth through stages, almost with the loss of Pai's life, that changes these characters and their ability to see clearly how tradition (the old ways) may be modified through circumstance and a mystical calling, not defined by internal or external structure (Erik Erikson).
The story is a wonderful example of magical realism; much like the Milagro Beanfield War or Like Water for Chocholate. For the contemporary reader, magical realism is a genre in which magical, or some would say illogical, scenarios and events appear in a normal setting. The power of this genre seems to be the juxtaposition of the two elements -- magic and realism -- in that in an everyday, somewhat banal, setting; one does not really expect magic, the unexpected, the delightful, to happen without a logical explanation. Contrary to many critical explanations, the basic idea of this juxtaposition is not simply to entertain, but as a genre to provide a greater insight into the possibilities of both the human and divine -- of the belief that not everything that happens can, or should, be explained rationally and that as advanced a being as we are, there are still things to learn about the universe. Witness a famous Arthur C. Clarke's "Third Law" -- "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Pai's story is part of the archetypal here's epic journey; through trials, doubts, and tribulations; all to provide that they are worthy. In this case, though, it was not just Pai learning that she was worthy of becoming Koro's successor; it was her father's learning that he had a place within the tribe, her Uncle understanding his role, and the combination of traditional values and sternness of Koro with the enveloping love of Nanny Flowers that helped Pai take their teachings, combine with her own innate gifts, and become truly special.
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