Children’s books can play mind games

I’m writing late today, because it’s my birthday. In fact, I’m writing so late that my birthday is already finished in Australia. My birthday is on a public holiday. In a normal year, I’d probably introduce you to a book that tells the history of that public holiday, but the history of that public holiday is very military and there is enough of that in our everyday right now. If you’re curious, the day is ANZAC Day and the history is the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

‘ANZAC’ stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, so I’ll give you one of my favourite Australian novels written by a New Zealand writer, as a compromise. Ruth Park moved to Sydney in 1942, where she married another writer of classic Australian books, D’Arcy Niland. I’ll introduce his The Shiralee one day.

I have several favourite books by Park: The Harp in the South, Poor Man’s Orange, and, of course all the stories of the Muddle-Headed Wombat. I suspect The Muddle-Headed Wombat was one of the first books I read outside school textbooks, in fact. I obtained my own copy of it in my teens and have never let anyone borrow it. My copy of The Muddle-Headed Wombat is pristine, however, compared to my copy of Playing Beatie Bow. I have maybe half a dozen books read so often that they cannot hold together, and this is one of them.

It’s set in Sydney, and is a time slip novel and… it’s almost impossible for me to describe. It’s been filmed and the film is charming but slight and the book is far more haunting and simply one of the best time slip novels out there.

Some books I read and re-read because they remind me of things I ought never forget. Playing Beatie Bow came out when I was an undergraduate, studying history. It became an instant reminder to me that history can happen as a narrative, as a spiral, as layers in time and more: history is not a simple thing.

I had only been to Sydney very briefly when I first read the novel. It suggested a society that was very different to the one I knew. More poor and urban and complex than the suburban I knew. Park’s two Sydneys brought the place to life in a way that made me rethink my own Melbourne. I wasn’t specialising in Australian history, but I attended every public lecture about Marvellous Melbourne by John Lack and I started to shape the stories of the streets I knew and I began to see the relationship between the stories we tell, the stories we lead.

When I myself moved to Sydney, in 1983, I walked down George Street and ventured down to The Rocks and found that the district was nothing like the novel. I had to learn another kind of history, or maybe another layer. Since then, The Rocks has been rebuilt and a museum established and it’s easier to see how the different moments of the past link, but then, I studied a street corner and tried to work out how it fitted and failed. I stopped trying and instead learned about the influenza pandemic and how it changed that tiny corner of Australia.

I suspect that this is the other reason I’m thinking of Playing Beatie Bow. The Rocks are indelibly linked in my mind with that pandemic, and, of course, now we are living through our own pandemic.

I can’t review Playing Beatie Bow. I can’t even analyse its history. This is unlike me. There is another timeslip novel whose history I analyse perfectly well, and that has an even more battered cover, Allison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. I suspect that Park’s novel is too linked to that big change in my life, becoming an historian and, in order to do so, moving from Melbourne to Sydney. I may never be able to pull it to pieces in the same I way I pull most novels to pieces. All I can suggest, then, is that you read it for yourself.

6 thoughts on “Children’s books can play mind games

  1. Pretty sure I have to read about the wombats, but your discussion of Playing Beatie Row makes that compelling, too.

    It’s always shocking to be a heavy reader and still find so many books I’ve never heard of or read.

    1. It’s always odd to find that Australians know about US books but that vice versa only operates in some cases. One of the things I should write a proper article about some day is that a lot of the Australian writers who are known in the US market write novels that are coded in a way that works for the US. Garth Nix and Trudi Canavan both do this. It’s seen as international writing, though – most people don’t see that ‘international’ is coded for NY publishers. The books I introduce here are not coded this way if they’re Australian. This means, of course, that it’s your nationality at play, not how well-read you are!

      1. When I was in Melbourne (just before the whole world went nuts), I was thrilled by all the bookstores and shocked by how hard it was to find Australian writers in said bookstores. I could get the latest US and UK bestsellers, many of the UK ones is cheaper trade paper editions that weren’t available elsewhere, but I had to see high and low for even well-known Australian authors. I ended up coming home with two Australian books despite visiting multiple bookstores.

        And of course, one of the reasons I was looking for Australian books was that it is very difficult to find them in the U.S., except in the cases you mention. Sigh.

        1. This is one reason I talk a lot about writers outside the US and UK (here, at conventions, when someone asks for an article) because those books need to be hinted for, even in our own countries. It’s a class system for books. Big publishers and work by US and some UK authors are the upper class. Australian writers are the semi-invisible middle class. We are advantaged when compared with around 30 other English-speaking country. Indian writers are in a class of their own. They’re mostly wildly disadvantaged if you look at bookshops outside India, but India has a big enough population to sustain careers. They have income, but very few are visible internationally.

  2. I LOVED Playing Beatie Bow as a young teenager… and when I first made it to Sydney, a decade later, that was my main literary/historical context for The Rocks. Like you, I struggled to find it on the ground, but the museum helped.

    1. I’m so glad you got there after the Museum was set up. It’s a lovely little museum, too. The other thing that helps that wasn’t there when I moved to Sydney is a series of houses (Susannah Bay) with each set up to show how people lived in different generations. Seeing the same building reflecting different generations made a difference, even though the streets no longer have that ‘feel.’

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