This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.
Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park
(1980, Penguin Classics – originally published by Thomas Nelson)
Despite being a massive book worm as a child, I never read Playing Beatie Bow. I think it probably had something to do with the cover – the ones which were most common when I was little were seriously creepy, and looked very very different from the kinds of books I usually read. But so many people I know have read and loved it, so I knew it needed to be part of my ‘Children Classics’ Australian Women Writer’s challenge.
I actually read Playing Beatie Bow twice before writing this review. It’s such an adored book, that I wanted to make sure I really ‘had’ it before I wrote about it. In a way, I’m terribly sad that I didn’t read this as a child. There have been other books written since Playing Beatie Bow which explore some of the same ideas and themes, and I read them as a child – so Playing Beatie Bow felt at times like it was going over old ground – even though it was written first.
This is the story of Abigail, a 14 year old girl who lives in the modern (well, late 1970s/1980) version of the Rocks in Sydney. She’s carefully built a wall around herself in the four years since her father left her and her mother, but now he’s back in her mother’s life and she wants them to move overseas with him. Meanwhile, Natalie, Abigail’s young neighbour has become overly interested in the scary game – Beatie Bow – the local children are playing – and the small ‘furry girl’ who comes to watch.
After a fight with her mother, Abigail finds herself chasing the furry girl – Beatie Bow, when suddenly she finds herself in the 1870s version of the Rocks – and after a run in with the girl’s father (injured in the Crimean War and still mourning for his wife) finds herself a guest of the Bow/Talisker family. Here she discovers she is the Stranger, bought to their time to help the family preserve the family gift.
I can definitely understand why this is such a beloved book. It mixes time travel and fantasy and historical fiction and romance in an almost effortless fashion, allowing it to appeal to a wide range of readers. The romance is gentle and sweet, perfect for slightly younger readers. The characters are quite vivid – quarrelsome but intelligent Beatie, wise Grandmother, kind Dovey, warm hearted Judah, wounded father and annoying Gibbie. The historical parts are interesting, while challenging the idea that one era is necessarily better than those that come before or after. And the writing is wonderful.
The real key to this is the coming-of-age of Abigail. In building up the wall to protect herself, she’s really shielded herself from other people around her and the things which hurt or affect them. Spending time away from her own problems helps open her eyes up to other people – and the very real things which shape their stories. I’m not sure this book would ever be published today – it’s too inbetween middle-grade and young adult and it crosses too many genres to be neatly catagorised the way so many of our modern books are. However, it’s aged remarkably well, considering that it’s more than 30 years old – I think it would be appealing to a lot of modern young readers (though with better covers – the classics one is aimed more at the nostalgia crowd and the Penguin classics is boring.)
If I learn nothing else, or complete no other books this Australian Women Writer’s challenge, this year will already be a big win for me. Finally reading this particular Australian classic has made me very happy, and if you have also not read it, I thoroughly recommend it.