Monday musings on Australian literature: Ruth Park
For a New Zealander, Ruth Park is a very popular Australian! Not only did she write the much-loved (and studied) Harp in the south trilogy, but she also wrote the hugely popular (in its time) radio serial The muddle-headed wombat, was married to the Australian D’Arcy Niland (now deceased) who wrote The shiralee, and is mother to children’s author-illustrators Deborah and Kilmeny (now deceased) Niland. Ruth Park also won the Miles Franklin Award with her Swords and crowns and rings, and wrote two very popular autobiographies, Fence around the cuckoo and Fishing in the Styx. And this is not all – or even all of the best – that she’s produced in her long career.
Park was born in New Zealand in the early 1920s and first came to Australia in 1940 when she met D’Arcy Niland. She writes that Australian writer Eve Langley*, with whom she had a longstanding friendship, said of Niland:
‘That’s a good face … Do you know what it is saying?’
‘It says “Take me or leave me.” I like that.’
So apparently did Park. She returned to Australia in 1942 to work as a journalist, and married Niland. They worked at various jobs in rural New South Wales for some years before Park’s stories gained the attention of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) resulting in their decision to try to make a living from free-lance writing. They wrote, and wrote, and wrote – anything that would earn money. They wrote, for example, short stories, genre stories (such as romances and westerns), radio talks and radio plays, scripts for radio comics, all the while honing their skills for their more serious writing goals. And they lived during these early years in Sydney’s inner city slum, Surry Hills.
These experiences of living in rural areas and city slums are clearly evident in Swords and crowns and rings (the story of the dwarf Jackie, and his love Cushie Moy) and the Harp in the south trilogy (the story of the Darcy – ha! – family). The thing I love about these books – both of which span the first 4-5 decades of the twentieth century – is the way Park explores gritty issues like poverty, abortion, religious bigotry, unemployment and illness with a psychological and social realism that also encompasses warmth and humour. Her main characters tend to be the quintessential Aussie battlers, but their concerns transcend time and place. It’s not surprising, really, that these works keep being read, re-published, set for study, and adapted for television and film.
Realism though is not the only string to Park’s fictional bow. She wrote in several “genres” for a range of audiences, including fantasy for children. Her Muddle-headed wombat stories ran on the ABC Children’s Session from 1957 to 1971. I have to say that I never have really been one for anthropomorphism, and have read few children’s classics featuring animals (no, not even The wind in the willows) but even I would tune in for the wombat! Park also wrote a children’s time-travel fantasy Playing Beatie Bow, which is taught in schools and has been made into a film.
And yet, for all this, I’m sure she is little known outside Australia … if I am wrong, please let me know!
In the meantime, I will conclude with her description in her first autobiography, Fence around the cuckoo, of her first sighting of Australia as she arrived by boat:
What I saw were endless sandstone cliffs reflecting the sunrise. A chill ran over my skin, my ears buzzed as they had once done when I was about to experience uncertainty about something as yet unknown. The sea fled south, its malachite green changing to beaming blue; the sky was sumptuous with a sun hotter than I had ever known.
This was my first glimpse of Australia Felix, the ancient, indifferent, nonpareil continent that was to become the love of my life.
Ruth Park is not one of those ground-breaking writers who makes you go, wow!, but she is an excellent story-teller who has an enviable ability to create and develop memorable characters who confront the real “stuff” of life. You could do far worse than read her if you want an introduction to Australian literature. If I haven’t convinced you, read Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Tony of Tony’s Bookworld on Harp in the South, and kimbofo at Reading Matters on her “Top 10 novels about Australia”.
*Park mentions Langley (whom I reviewed early in this blog) several times in Fence around the cuckoo. One concerns Park’s decision to stay with Eve to escape a Peeping Tom uncle but, when she arrived at the windmill in which she believed Eve to be living, she found no Eve but another woman who had heard of Eve but not for some years. “What had happened to that weird girl?”, the new windmill resident wondered. Poor Eve. She was indeed a bit weird and had a rather sad life, but that is another story.