Monday musings on Australian literature: Ruth Park

The muddle-headed wombat, book cover

Wombat book cover (Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia)

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?’
‘No, what?’
‘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.

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Ruth Park

  1. Hi Sue, I did enjoy reading this post – yes, I am a fan of Ruth Park and I hope your post encourages more readers to discover her. BTW I’ve read one of Eve Langley’s novels: The Pea Pickers – it’s an interesting look at a lifestyle now long gone, but she wasn’t a born story-teller like Ruth Park.

    • Thanks Lisa … yes. I think we discussed Langley before when I did my review early in my blog. I agree she wasn’t the storyteller Park was. She was more the emotional poet-type which is probably why her life fell apart and park’s didn’t! I believe a library (Mitchell?? SLV??) has boxes of unpublished works by her that people can’t quite make head nor tail out of.

  2. I grew up on the muddle-headed wombat books — I adored them!

    I also have a soft spot for the Harp in the South trilogy (I’m eager to buy the new Penguin Modern Classics edition), but haven’t read any of her other stuff.

    I keep meaning to read her two-part autobiography, because I discovered Darcy Niland last year. I loved The Shiralee so much I hunted down all his other novels (all out of print) on Abebooks. I have a nice little pile here, a special reading project I’ll tackle when the mood strikes me.

    What a fascinating couple they must have been.

    • Thanks kimbofo. Lisa and I have both reviewed her Swords and crowns and rings. It’s a really excellent read. I’ve read the two autobiographies – when they first came out – and looking at the first one last night (I think my Mum has the second one I felt I’d love the read it again. She talks towards the end of Fence about her early days as a young journalist in NZ. You’d probably like it.

      Park and Niland also apparently wrote a joint autobiography called The drums go bang (1956) which deals a lot with their trying to make a living as freelance writers. I must read that. It’s a shame that Niland died so young (in 1967). One of their twin daughters Kilmeny also died young (early 50s).

    • Thanks Stef. I’m not surprised which is why I decided to do an MM on her. The muddle-headed wombat was a lot of fun, partly because of the word games she played with him as well as of course all the muddles he got into.

  3. Yes, I remember The Harp in the South was quite a transition from my Little House and Silver Brumby books! Much darker…

    Except now, instead of wanting to read this, I want to go and reread all my Elyne Mitchell stories. Whoops!

  4. Thanks for this post, I just learnt so much! I have read the Harp in the South Trilogy and The Muddle Headed Wombat! I loved that book so much as a child I am so glad that you have reminded me about it. I will make sure I try and find more of her books now

  5. ‘much loved in its time’ – what are you saying, Whispering? This is sacrilege. The muddleheaded wombat is much loved right now, here, in the heart of the national capital. In fact, for our household the date on which we left our collected muddleheaded wombat stories book on a tram in Vienna is still an annual day of mourning

    • Oh dear, I am sorry for your loss… But as for this post, it’s the radio serial, the radio serial, that was loved in its time! I make no claims about the books! (Says she sliding out from under the weight of your disapprobation. Shall I pray to Saint Mary you-know-who to intercede on my behalf?)

      • You could pray to her to return the book and then you might stand a chance of returning to grace. It was 16 or 17 years ago though so it would be a case of adding to her list of miracles. On the other hand, when you wonder in your post whether Ruth Park is known outside Australia, I suppose it is possible she is now known to some lighthanded Viennese tramdriver.

  6. I love this series of yours! I ‘m not all that familiar with Ruth Park except that she wrote Playing Beatie Bow and only because I won a copy of her book from Penguin! She might not be well known outside Australia but this might also be the case *within* Australia particularly the younger generation (ahem). I might have to go take a squiz at the muddle-headed wombat!

    • Thanks Mae … I’m glad you are enjoying the series. I’m finding it fun – but a challenge – to produce. My daughter, who is a little younger than you, has read Harp in the south but that may be because I recommended it to her. (Then again it may not, I can’t quite remember!). But you are probably right that many of todays 20-somethings (and teens) probably best know Playing Beatie Bow. How fantastic that you won a copy! What did you do to win?

  7. I wonder who the first Kiwi was that we claimed as Australian?

    I remember reading these books after the mini-series came out and absolutely loving them, and yes, the Muddle Headed Wombat was a favourite when I was growing up too.

  8. Did you comment up there somewhere that you don’t like anthropomorphisms in books? I certainly hope you don’t include my favourite book ever, “The Magic pudding” in that category! You could debate the whole concept of anthropomorphism though – isn’t it, just like fiction in general, just another way of creating a character?

    • LOL Sue … I did indeed – well I said that I’m not one for anthropomorphism. As for The magic pudding, you can take the fact that I’ve never read it to mean whatever you like! I just didn’t read The magic pudding, The gumnut baby books, The wind in the willows, Watership down etc when I was a child/young. (That said, I did read and rather enjoy Animal Farm, and I loved Charlotte’s web when I read it to the kids!)

      Yes, I think it is another way of creating character – it’s just that I’m not drawn to it and only read it when there’s some compelling reason to (school for Animal farm, reading to children for Charlotte’s web). I think it’s related to the fact that I’m not drawn to fantasy either. (I’ve never read The lord of the rings! Though did read and enjoy The hobbit. Just didn’t feel driven to read more).

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