Bill curates: Ruth Park

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. This is a most enjoyable project as I read every post and usually the comments too. Which is why I’m still only up to Oct. 2010. Today, because I can, I’ve chosen an AWW Gen 3 post on Ruth Park which I had previously overlooked.


My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Ruth Park

The muddle-headed wombat by Ruth Park, book cover

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.


Book cover

It’s interesting for me to re-read these old posts of mine, and think about how I’d write them now! Regarding Park, my admiration has only grown for her warmth, humour and abiding sense of fairness. Check my Park posts here.

But, back to Bill. He says he’s not a fan of Park’s autobiographies but he does recommend, whenever he can, the Park/Niland memoir The Drums Go Bang, which we have both reviewed (Bill’s review) (my review). I enjoyed her autobiographies, but The drums go bang is very special.

Are you are Park fan? If so (or if not), we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary dynasties

Some years ago I wrote a Monday Musings post on Australia’s literary couples. However, it recently occurred to me that we also have some literary dynasties, which could be fun to explore. This post, like many of its ilk, is a bit of a fishing exercise. I will share a few that came to me, and would love you to share ones that come to you.

By dynasty, I mean two or more generations of one family (that is, in the same line of descent.) My focus is fiction but I’m allowing some deviations from this where writing reputations are strong. So, here’s my list – in chronological order by birthyear of the oldest family member.

Charlotte Barton (1796-1867) and Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872)

Charlotte Barton and daughter Louisa Atkinson are probably the least well-known of the writers I list here, even though Charlotte is credited as having written Australia’s earliest known children’s book, A mother’s offering to her children, and Louisa as the first Australian-born woman to publish a novel in Australia, Gertrude the emigrant.

However, Atkinson had a bigger bow to her name, botany. As I wrote in Wikipedia and here, she was well-known for her fiction during her life-time, but her long-term significance rests on her botanical work. She’s regarded as a ground-breaker for Australian women in journalism and natural science, and is significant in her time for her sympathetic references to Australian Aborigines in her writings and for her encouragement of conservation.

Louisa (1848-1920) and Henry Lawson (1867-1922)

Book coverBy all accounts, Louisa Lawson was quite a force. A poet, writer and publisher, as well as a suffragist and feminist, she was fully engaged in the country’s literary and political life, but is most remembered now for the latter, particularly her feminist causes.

Louisa’s relationship with her poet-short story writer son, Henry, was fraught. However, together they edited the radical pro-federation newspaper The Republican, and, later she published his poems and stories in her own newspaper, The Dawn. She used this press to publish his first book, Short stories in prose and verse. It is Henry, then, who is most remembered for his writing. His most famous story is “The drover’s wife”, which many Aussies do (or did) at school, and his best-known collection is While the billy boils. Lawson is probably still Australia’s best known short story writer.

Bill (The Australian Legend) quotes Bertha, Henry Lawson’s wife, as saying

“If there is anything in heredity, Harry’s literary talents undoubtedly came from his mother …”

Ruth Park (1917-2010), D’Arcy Niland (1917-1967), and Deborah (b. 1950) and Kilmeny Niland (1950-2009)

Novelists (and writers of all forms) Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland created quite a literary family, with two of their five children, twin daughters Deborah and Kilmeny, becoming successful children’s book writers and (primarily) illustrators. I have written about Ruth Park before, and need to review Niland on my blog, but when I was the mother of young children, I became very aware of Deborah and Kilmeny who collaborated on thirteen children’s books. Their best known book is an illustrated version of Banjo Paterson’s poem, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. First published in 1973, it has never been out of print. Unfortunately, Kilmeny died in 2009.

Olga (1919-1986) and Chris  (b. 1948) Masters

Book coverBoth Olga and her son Chris Masters were journralists. Chris still is. Olga commenced work as a journalist when she was only 15 years old, but through her relatively short career, she also wrote novels, short stories and drama. Her career as a published writer of fiction was very brief, with The home girls short story collection being published in 1982 and Loving daughters, her wonderful first novel, published in 1984. It is Australian literature’s loss that she died just as her fiction career was taking off.

Son Chris is, primarily, a journalist, but he is at the top of his profession with multiple Walkley Awards to his name, and his controversial biography of a controversial radio personality, Jonestown: The power and the myth of Alan Jones, won a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award. I wonder if he’s ever thought of writing a novel?

Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002), Merv Lilley (1919-2016), Kate (b. 1960) and Rozanna Lilley (b. 1960)

Multi-awarded poet, novelist and playwright Hewett led a colourful and controversial life – some of which has come out posthumously in poet daughter Kate’s collection Tilt and daughter Rozanna’s memoir, Do oysters get bored? I don’t really want to explore that here because it’s a whole other subject, but you can read a little about it on the ABC and in my post on a Canberra Writers Festival conversation with Rozanna.

Meanwhile, and regardless, they do comprise another dynasty of writers, with, between them, a significant oeuvre.

Ann Deveson (1930-2016) and Georgia Blain (1964-2016)

Ann Deveson was well-known to Australians of my generation, because of her high profile as a social commentator and filmmaker, not to mention her role as the “Omo” lady in a famous serious of television commercials for Omo laundry detergent! She was, you’d have to say, versatile, also having been chair of the South Australian Film Corporation and Executive Director of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Her most famous book is, probably, her memoir-biography about her son’s schizophrenia, Tell me I’m here.

Deveson’s daughter, Georgia Blain, was also a writer, but, unlike her mother she had a substantial body of fiction to her name, as well as non-fiction. Blain won or was short or longlisted for many of Australia’s literary awards, with her most successful novel being her 8th and last, Between a wolf and a dog. Deveson and Blain tragically died within days of each other, which I wrote about at the time.

Thomas (b. 1935) and Meg Keneally (b. ca 1967)

Book coverMulti-award-winning author Thomas (Tom) Keneally has published over 40 novels, from his 1964 debut novel, The place at Whitton, to his most recent 2020 novel, The Dickens boy. He is best known for his Booker prize-winning novel, Schindler’s ark, which was adapted to the Academy Award winning film, Schindler’s list.

Amongst his 40 or so novels are four in The Monsarrat Series, which he co-wrote with his daughter Meg. Meg has gone on to publish a novel on her own, Fled, with another due out this year. Both Tom and Meg write primarily historical fiction.

In a “Two of us” article in 2016 in The Sydney Morning Herald, Tom writes

Temperamentally I could see she was very like me. I think that’s why we’re able to work together now. I find it hard to batter out 1500 words of a new draft of a novel in a day, and I was always impressed by the speed and fluency with which she could write. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be good to get her out of the maw of the corporate world and turn her into something really self-destructive, like a novelist?”

Haha, love it!

There are other dynasties, most notably families of historians, but I’ll finish here and wait for your suggestions. 

Postscript: No, I haven’t forgotten those 10th anniversary literary requests. They will be done, but they require more time than I have now, hence this post that was already in the offing!

Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, The drums go bang! (#BookReview)

Book coverVolume 1 of Ruth Park’s autobiography, A fence around the cuckoo, covers the period of her life up to when she lands in Australia to marry D’Arcy Niland. Not being sure, perhaps, that there’d be a sequel, Park concludes with:

We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember laughter.

That autobiography was published in 1992. The drums go bang, written collaboratively by Park and Niland, was published in 1956 and covers the first five or so of these years to just after the publication in 1947 of The harp in the south.

The first thing that struck me was its point of view: it slips astonishingly between third person and first person plural, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. And then the penny dropped, its collaborative nature. When they are talking about one of them, Tiger (Ruth’s nickname) or Evans (D’Arcy’s), third person is used, but when they are talking about them together, first person plural is used. Here is an example about their delayed honeymoon:

We didn’t mind the delay. Tiger was crazy to see Sydney, and besides she wasn’t too keen on going away to the Blue Mountains with a strange man. While Evans was away at the Railway she went around the city on her own …

Once you work out what’s going on, it works very well. However, to understand this particular paragraph, and the “strange man” comment you’ll need to read their story for yourself, as I want to move on to other things. Suffice it to say that this comment, while containing an element of truth, given the way their relationship developed, is also an example of their light, self-deprecating humour. As Park said in her autobiography, “most of all I like to remember laughter”.

The drums go bang is a short and often funny book, but it manages to cover a lot, including their struggles to find accommodation in 1940s Sydney when accommodation was scarce, their decision to go freelance and the resultant struggle to survive, their work in the outback, two pregnancies, their lives in Surry Hills and other Sydney suburbs, and their relationships with a wonderful cast of characters. The aspects which interested me most were of course Surry Hills, because it inspired The harp in the south, the writing life, and the writing itself, which provides such an insight into their skills.

Although they tell it with such humour, Park and Niland are very clear about how difficult the freelance life is. For most of the five years covered by the book they live a hand-to-mouth existence, experiencing poverty at close hand. However, there’s also good advice here for would-be writers. For example, early in the book, Tiger expresses frustration at Evans’s belief that a good story will sell regardless, but even this is told with humour:

He was convinced that if the story were good it must sell. He bailed up an amiable Salvation Army major and tried to persuade him that “The Other Side of Love” was just what was needed for the War Cry. He submitted “The Menace of Money” to the Business Man’s Monthly, and a sentimental animal story to the house magazine at the Abattoirs.

They share their Minor Carta, their manifesto for writers who wish to make a living writing. Its eight articles include some hard learnt truths, such as that you have to “write anything and everything”, you cannot afford to be “snobbish” about your art, and you can’t let rejection slips get you down. They talk about the variability of payment systems for freelance work, unscrupulous writing schools, and the importance of marketing, of needing to “shape it to fit”. They write articles, songs, short stories, radio plays, children’s radio, comedy sketches, and more – anything that might bring in a cheque (and they do it sharing one old typewriter.)

I’d love to share more about their lives, and particularly the characters in it, like Evans’ brother Young Gus, the generous freelance publisher Mr Virtue, and colourful relations like Aunt Nibblestones and Uncle Looshus, but I want to get onto something that is most relevant to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week, their time in Surry Hills and how it inspired The harp in the south. Initially scared by “the place, with its brawling, shrieking life”, abusive drunks and fighting prostitutes, Park started to adapt, and

… began to study the people for what they were, and not what they did. Their true kindness, their generosity and charity filled her with shame. They were so much more genuinely loveable than she had given them credit for being, and she began to understand how the incredible congestion of their lives, the rabbit-warren houses, the inescapable dirt of an area which is built around the big factory chimneys all contributed to their innately lawless, conventionless attitude towards life. She began to understand that in such a place dirt ceases to become important, morals are often impracticable, and privacy is an impossibility.

As it turned out, though, The harp in the south was written, almost, you could say, accidentally. In New Zealand for some needed R&R after the birth of their second child, they are sent a clipping by Uncle Looshus which announces a Sydney Morning Herald competition for a novel, short story and poem. Park tries to convince Niland to write a novel but he refuses, saying he only writes short stories, and tells her to have a go. So, she does, and of course Surry Hills is her inspiration:

… she felt she understood them. She certainly liked them, mostly because in the midst of all their dirt and poverty and fecklessness they contrived to be happy.

She wrote down a sentence that seemed to sum up their philosophy: “I was thinking of how lucky we are”.

That sentence, the last line in the book, was the key that opened the door. From then on the story grew by itself.

This book, published serially in 1947 to both acclaim and vituperation, has become a classic of Australian social realism, albeit, as Paul Genoni says, “tempered with romanticism”. The same could be said of this delightful memoir.

Challenge logoRuth Park and D’Arcy Niland
The drums go bang!
Illustrated by Phil Taylor
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956
ISBN: None

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary couples

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (Unknown date and photographer, Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Are you fascinated, like I am, by literary couples? It seems so romantic to share one’s calling with another … even if the reality is not always as idyllic or as successful as it sounds. We’ve all heard of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to name just a few famous couples. I’m guessing, though, that not many have heard of our Australian couples, but we do have them – and so this week I’m sharing five (from the past) with you.

Vance (1885-1959) and Nettie Palmer (1885-1964)

While Vance and Nettie Palmer are not particularly well-known now (at least to the best of my knowledge), they were extremely significant in their heyday, the 1920s-1950s, as writers, as proponents of Australian literature and as mentors for younger writers. Nettie in particular corresponded with and supported many women writers, including Marjorie Barnard (1897-1987) and Flora Eldershaw (1897-1956). They were literary critics and essayists. Vance was also a novelist (I read his The passage many moons ago) and dramatist, while Nettie was also a poet. They were political – egalitarian, anti-Fascist, and tarred, as were many back then, with the “Communist” brush! Their relationship seems to have been a productive and supportive one.

George Johnston (1912-1970) and Charmian Clift (1923-1969)

This is one of those troubled pairings, and it ended in the suicide of Charmian when she was not quite 46. They met in Australia, lived together in England and Greece (where they tried to live on their writing), before returning to Australia with their three children in 1964. Johnston wrote the highly successful My brother Jack, which some see as a contender for the Great Australian Novel and which is the first in a semi-autobiographical trilogy. Charmian wrote two successful autobiographies, Mermaid singing and Peel me a lotus. Both wrote much more across a wide spectrum: novels, essays and other journalistic pieces, short stories, and so on. Theirs was, in the end, one of the more self-destructive rather than mutually supportive relationships. Sad.

Ruth Park (1917-2010) and D’Arcy Niland (1917-1967)

Ruth Park (born in New Zealand) and D’Arcy Niland were more than a literary couple. They created a literary family, with two of their five children, twin daughters Deborah and Kilmeny, becoming successful children’s book writers and illustrators. I have written about Ruth Park before. She and D’Arcy worked as free-lance writers and shared a concern in their writings for the battlers in Australia. They worked hard to survive on their writing, turning their hands to a wide range of forms and genres, including novels, short stories, plays and journalistic pieces. They were, like the Palmers, a successful and happy couple until D’Arcy’s early death.

Rosemary Dobson (b. 1920) and Alec Bolton (1926-1996)

Rosemary and Alec were a little different from the other couples I’ve chosen to discuss here, but I’ve chosen them because they lived in my city, and I (ta-da) met and worked for a few years in the office next door to Alec. Rosemary Dobson is a significant Australian poet who associated with other major Australian poets like A. D. Hope and David Campbell. She has published around 14 volumes of poetry, edited anthologies, and translated poetry from French and Russian. Her husband was not so much a writer as a publisher. According to the AustLit* website he “was a creative force in Australian publishing for almost half a century. After his war service he worked as an editor for Angus & Robertson and Ure Smith before establishing the publishing program at the National Library of Australia”. He established one of those wonderful small presses, Brindabella Press, in 1972 while still working at the Library, and then continued working on it after his retirement. It was a labour of love, and among the authors he published was, of course, his wife!

Dorothy Porter (1954-2008) and Andrea Goldsmith (b. 1950)

Dorothy Porter, whose last book The bee hut I have reviewed here, is (was) another Australian poet. She lived with her partner, the novelist Andrea Goldsmith, for 17 years before she died through cancer in 2008. Goldsmith, whose latest novel The reunion I’ve also reviewed here, said in an interview after Porter’s death that “I’ve always loved Dot’s work – indeed I fell for the poetry before I fell for the poet”. Porter, who also wrote several verse novels, was more prolific than Goldsmith, but both produced well-regarded work during the course of their relationship. Another productive and successful pairing.

Some time ago I read an article about literary couples and the challenges they face: financial (supporting themselves from writing), space (finding room for each to write), and the big one, jealousy or competitiveness. I’m impressed that, despite such issues, four of the five couples I’ve described seem to have been remarkably successful – and this is beautifully exemplified by Ruth Park’s words at the end of her autobiography, Fence around the cuckoo:

We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember the laughter.

After sharing five children and a rather insecure career, that’s pretty impressive.

I’d love to hear about other literary couples – Australian or otherwise, past or present – that you have come across.

* I have not provided a link to this site since most of its content is available by subscription only.

Ruth Park, Missus

Missus was the last written in Ruth Park‘s Harp in the South trilogy, but is the first in terms of chronology. The first two novels, Harp in the South and Poor man’s orange, were published in 1948 and 1949 respectively, while Missus was not published until 1985.

These first novels, which met with some controversy on publication, are set in early post-war Sydney, the tenements of Surry Hills, and deal with the lives of Mumma and Hughie Darcy and their daughters. Missus is set in the 1920s, in country New South Wales, and relates Mumma and Hughie’s youth and courting days. I have only just read Missus, partly because I read the first two in my teens which was, I have to admit, before Missus appeared on the scene.

You can tell that the writer of Missus is the writer of Swords and crowns and rings (1977). The latter is larger scale – and deals more consciously with its historical time-frame. That is, it more specifically addresses the wars and the Depression, and their impact on the main characters. However, the First World War and the coming Depression do provide the backdrop to Missus. Both books depict rural life and characters with convincing realism.


Now, the plot. For those who’ve read the first two novels, the interest here is not whether Mumma (Margaret Kilker) and Hughie get together but how they get together and who they are. The first chapter – after a brief introduction to the town of Trafalgar including how the early settlers cruelly despatched the Indigenous inhabitants – introduces us to Hughie and his family. We meet his brother Jer (Jeremiah), who is born with “his feet back to front”, and we learn of the failure of his parents marriage, his mother’s early death and his being turfed out by his father when he was around 14 years old. Jer goes with him, and becomes both millstone and support from then on.

In Chapter 2, we are properly introduced to Margaret (who makes a brief appearance in the first chapter) and her family. Unlike Hughie, she grew up in a large, loving family, though not one without its stresses and losses. Margaret, we learn, has taken a shine to Hughie, much to her mother’s concern, because she sees Hughie for what he is, “a wild goose of a boy … [who’s] got flighty feet”, a “shifty article”. This mother (Rowena) is, in fact, a powerful presence. I love this description of Rowena after she decided to give up on (“on” being the operative word) her first true love:

Her chest ached as if it had a skewer stuck in it, but she tossed her head more often than she hung it.

From here on the story progresses chronologically as Hughie moves around the countryside obtaining and losing or leaving jobs, while Margaret stays at home waiting for Hughie’s occasional visits. The characters of our characters, if you know what I mean, are illuminated by the actions of, or their interactions with, other characters. Margaret’s younger sister, the jealous Josie, provides an interesting foil for Margaret as well as an opportunity for Park to explore women’s lack of rights. Josie marries young – for the wrong reason to the wrong man – and the marriage fails. She’s intelligent and manages to obtain accountant qualifications, but her attempt to set herself up as an accountant in the town fails because no-one will use a woman accountant. Other characters include Alf, Margaret’s long-suffering but sensible aunt who works as a housekeeper for the local priest and who, at different times, provides shelter and monetary support for Josie and Jer; the Biddles (the mustard-gas damaged Joe and his common law wife) who take in Hughie and then Jer at one time in their lives; and the redoubtable Bids Tookey who … but that might give away what little plot there is.

Sunday Creek, near Rutherglen

Australian country creek, lined by eucalypts

In just 250 pages Park paints a rich picture of 1920s life in rural Australia while at the same time developing Hughie and Margaret’s characters. Her characters are all flawed, some more than others, but she draws them with a clear-eyed warmth. She sees them for who they are but she respects them nonetheless. There’s no sentimentality here, but neither is it cynical or bitter. Her themes are universal ones: innocence and experience, familial and romantic love, deception and loyalty, most of it overlaid with that pragmatism that is necessary for survival in a hard place in hard times. As I wrote in this week’s Monday Musings, it’s not surprising that these books still resonate.

Finally, the language is lovely – simple, direct and evocative. Read this from the last few pages of the novel:

In the unkempt garden bloomed freesias and grape hyacinths. The eucalypt twig flushed red, the four creeks overflowed, lambs appeared on the hills, white as mushrooms and as sudden.

‘Them two had better wed quick,’ said Eny ominously, ‘or I won’t answer for Margaret’.

Ha! I think I’ll leave it there – pregnant with possibility …

Ruth Park
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1985
ISBN: 0140089438

Ruth Park, Swords and crowns and rings

Note to self: never again “read” an audiobook over a long period, such as, say, 5 months! This is how I read Ruth Park‘s engrossing 1977 Miles Franklin award-winning novel, Swords and crowns and rings. It was not hard to keep up with the plot as it’s pretty straightforward – and powerful. It is hard, though, over such a time to keep up with and remember all the nuances in her writing and expression and the way they affect character development and thematic strands. For a thoughtful review of the book by someone who read it more sensibly, please see my friend Lisa’s, of ANZLitLovers, here.

I am not an experienced “reader” of audiobooks and I have to say that I found what seemed to me to be the over-dramatisation of the story rather trying in the first few CDs. I gradually got used to it, however, and by the end I was happy with Rubinstein’s reading, but it did take me a while to settle into it.

New-Zealand born Ruth Park is a wonderful chronicler of Australian life. Her novel, The harp in the south, set in working class Sydney in the 1940s is, to my mind at least, an Australian classic – but it is just one of her extensive and well-regarded body of work. Her autobiographies are also well-worth reading, not only for the light they throw on her life and on that of her husband, author D’Arcy Niland, but also on that of the Australian literary establishment of the mid-twentieth century.

Anyhow, back to the novel. Swords and crowns and rings tells the story of two young people born in an Australian country town before World War 1 – pretty Cushie Moy (born to a comfortable family with the stereotypical socially ambitious mother who has married down) and the dwarf, Jackie Hanna (whose background is well and truly working class). Not surprisingly, Cushie’s parents frown on the friendship which develops between the two. This is not an innovative story but, rather, good historical fiction with evocative writing and sensitive character development. Consequently, as you would expect, the two are separated just as they realise their love for each other and the book then chronicles their respective lives – Cushie with various relations in Sydney and Jackie in a number of country locations before he too reaches Sydney. Much of the book takes place during the early 1930s Depression. Park gorgeously evokes the hardships – physical, economic and emotional – experienced by people like Jackie and his step-dad “the Nun” as they struggle to support themselves. All this is underpinned by Park’s thorough knowledge of the social and political history of the time: we learn about labour organisations and the rise of socialism, of that irascible politician “Big Fella” Jack Lang, and of the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The resolution is predictable – it is, after all, a book of its genre – but it is not over-sentimentalised and is not achieved before the characters, Jackie in particular, have matured to the point that we can trust that he not only deserves what will come but that he will continue to work and mature for the betterment of himself and those he loves. It is truly a powerful book about human nature, as well as about the place and time in which it is set.

Ruth Park
Swords and crowns and rings (Audio CD)
Read by Deidre Rubenstein
Bolinda Audio, 2007
18 hours on 15 compact discs
ISBN: 9781741636628