Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A tribute to Ruth Park

Another great favorite writer has passed away, Ruth Park.

I am afraid she is unfairly forgotten today. This is what I wrote in 1987 in my review of her best novel, Playing Beatie Bow. 

Playing Beatie Bow
by Ruth Park. New York: Atheneum, 1982.

Books about time displacement have always been popular, ever since Edith Nesbit created this subgenre of fantasy eighty year ago with her brilliant The Story of the Amulet.

Since then, the pattern of time travel has become more sophisticated; it is no longer time travel for its own sake, and not even presenting history lessons in an entertaining manner. Modern writers employing time displacement discuss philosophical aspects of Time, such as re-experiencing the past or discovering links between different epochs. Time travel becomes a road toward identity.

Identity is exactly what the fourteen-year-old Abigail lacks. Her name isn't even Abigail; she uses this name as a mask to hide behind. When Abigail finds herself in the past, she gets another perspective of her own problems; when she returns, she can start solving them.

The title alludes to a game, in which Beatie Bow is a ghost, a spooky figure evoked by a magical rhyme. In the past, Abigail meets a girl called Beatie Bow: she is the key that opens the door between the present and the past.

Abigail is forced to live in the past, a hundred years prior to her own time, in an epoch alien and repulsive, which also puts very special demands on people. She stays with the Bows and has to learn their lifestyle, very unlike her own. She must learn to adjust. By and by she understands that her presence has a purpose, and her most difficult moral choice is to sacrifice her own feelings in order to fulfil the purpose.

The story is beautifully structured; nothing is accidental; the tiniest details are recalled at the end, where all mysteries are explained in an unexpected way. Possibly, the appearance of a descendant of the Bow family in Abigail's time is an unnecessary surrogate for the object of Abigail's secret passion in the past. But it is a minor fault in an otherwise exciting and engaging novel.

Australia has become an important country with respect to children's literature, featuring a number of interesting new authors. In Ruth Park's book, we experience Australia on two historical levels, which complement each other.

Opsis Kalopsis, 1987:1

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