Archive for the ‘Ruth Park’ Category

Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park ~ 1980. This edition: Puffin (Penguin Australia), 1998. Softcover. 196 pages.

My rating: 8/10

This well-written coming-of-age, historical fiction juvenile novel by New Zealand-born Australian writer Ruth Park is deserving of all the awards and rave reviews it has garnered through the years.

14-year-old Abigail – Abbie – Kirk is still deeply wounded by the separation of her parents four years earlier. In her anger at her beloved father for his desertion, she has changed her name from his chosen Lynette to “an old name, a witch’s name” – Abigail.

Anger seethes within Abbie, though she is learning to hide it. She is

…a girl who wished to be private.

Outside, she was composed, independent, not very much liked. The girls at school said she was a weirdie, and there was no doubt she was an outsider. She looked like a stick in jeans and a tank top; so she would not wear them. If everyone else was wearing her hair over her face, Abigail scraped hers back. She didn’t have a boyfriend, and when asked why she either looked enigmatic as though she knew twenty times more about boys than anyone else, or said she’s never met one who was half-way as interesting as her maths textbook. The girls said she was unreal, and she shrugged coolly. The unreal thing was that she didn’t care in the least what they thought of her. She felt a hundred years older and wiser than this love-mad rabble in her class.

Her chief concern was that no one, not even her mother, should know what she was like inside. Because maybe to adults the turmoil of uncertainties, extravagant glooms, and sudden blisses, might present some sort of pattern or map, so they could say, ‘Ah, so that’s the real Abigail, is it?’

The thought of such trespass made her stomach turn over. So she cultivated an expressionless face, a long piercing glance under her eyelashes that Grandmother called slippery. She carefully laid false trails until she herself sometimes could not find the way into her secret heart. Yet the older she grew the more she longed for someone to laugh at the false trails with, to share the secrets.

What secrets? She didn’t yet know what they were herself.

So Abbie gets on with her everyday life, going to school, helping her mother in her vintage clothing and memorabilia shop, ‘Magpies’, and occasionally babysitting her neighbour’s younger children.

It is while accompanying one of those children to the playground that Abbie first notices a solitary, crop-haired, strangely dressed child lingering in the shadow of a wall, wistfully watching the others at play. Abbie approaches her, but she cries out and runs away. Abbie is intrigued. Who is the child, and why do none of the others, except for her small charge Natalie, seem to see her?

The next time Abbie sees the girl, she again approaches her, but this time as the child flees Abbie follows close behind. Through a the twisting maze of  The Rocks, Sydney’s historical district, they go, until Abbie realizes that she is completely lost – the atmosphere has somehow changed – evening is coming on – and streets are now lit with gas lights, and down a side-street comes a horse-drawn cab. Terrified now, Abbie continues her flight, following glimpses of the only familiar thing she still recognizes, the fluttering fringes of the mysterious child’s shawl.

Of course, by this time, we have realized that somehow Abbie has crossed through a mysterious portal into a previous time and place, the squalid slums district of 1873 Sydney. Rescued and cared for by the little girl’s family, Abbie goes through a transformation of her own, until at last returning to her own time changed, chastened, older (at least in experience) and wiser.

A highly enjoyable, on the whole well-thought-out time-travel tale; the weakest points are the actual time travel sequences – but these are notoriously hard to write, being, of course, purely imaginative with no real-world references to guide the writer. There are elements of  the supernatural – quite a lot of the plot revolves around the passing on of the powers of something like a ‘second sight’ among a family – and there is a certain amount of realistic romance. The ending is possibly a bit too pat, but in general is well-balanced and satisfying, as it ties up all loose ends but leaves the future optimistically open.

I would recommend this for older children, perhaps 12 and up, to adult. The quality of the writing is very high; the story itself is interesting and creatively presented. An intriguing glimpse into contemporary and historical urban Australia (set, as mentioned earlier, in Sydney, New South Wales), as well as a highly sympathetic protagonist.

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