The game is called Beatie Bow and the children play it for the thrill of scaring themselves. But when Abigail is drawn in, the game is quickly transformed into an extraordinary, sometimes horrifying, adventure as she finds herself transported to a place that is foreign yet strangely familiar . . .
Abigail Kirk’s life is about to be upended – in more ways than one. Her mother has just announced that she has been seeing Abigail’s father again, the man who left the family for another woman four years ago. Abigail and her mother reside in Mitchell, the high-rise tower Abigail’s architect father helped create, in an affluent part of Sydney called ‘The Rocks’. Even worse than the news of her mother’s rekindled romance, is her announcement that they are moving to Norway with her father while he studies at a prominent university over there.
Abigail is disgusted and ashamed at her mother’s eagerness to take her husband back. But Abigail is also scared – scared to love her father again, after hating him for so long. And she’s terrified by the idea that her mother might just choose to leave Abigail in Sydney, with her despicable grandmother, while she follows ‘true love’ all the way to Norway. Needing a distraction from fighting with her mother and thinking about her father, Abigail offers to babysit two children who also live in the Mitchell tower.
While at the playground with young Natalie and Vincent, Abigail observes the children playing a peculiarly gruesome chanting game, which culminates in the giggled shout – ‘It’s Beatie Bow, risen from the dead!’ Also watching this odd game is a child who Natalie refers to as ‘the furry girl’, for her shaved head. The child watches the others play, but doesn’t join in. And when Abigail tries to approach her, she scampers off down the laneways … so, Abigail follows. She chases her down the crooked cobbled streets that make up The Rocks, and then Abigail finds herself staring down a horse-drawn carriage and knocked on her backside by a burly man waving a sword about.
When Abigail wakes from unconsciousness she finds herself transported to a very different Sydney. There is no Harbour Bridge, and no familiar curved Opera House on the horizon. The people here speak in an odd broken English, and believe Abigail to be a lady for her lily-white skin and perfectly soft hands. There’s Granny tending to Abigail’s twisted ankle, a sweet-faced woman called Dovey and cousin Judah, a rugged sea-man. And then there’s Beatie Bow ('furry girl'), who begs Abigail not to tell Granny where she came from – because Beatie Bow does not wish to be cursed with the Gift.
It is the Gift of time, for Abigail wakes up in her beloved home town of Sydney, but not as she has ever known it … for this is the colony of New South Wales, in the year 1873.
Ruth Park’s ‘Playing Beatie Bow’, originally published in 1980, is an Australian classic. It won the 1981 ‘Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award’, as well as the ‘Boston Globe Horn Book Award’, and continues to be a staple of many English reading lists and a recurring favourite amongst Australian children. It was also adapted into a 1986 movie starring Peter Phelps (which, if you can get your hands on a copy, is worth watching for Phelp's mega-sideburns, and a psychedelic keyboard soundtrack).
‘Playing Beatie Bow’ is, without a doubt, one of my all-time favourite books, ever. I read this back in year six, and it was for English class so I was understandably hesitant. Reading the blurb I thought for sure that the book would be a history lesson, masquerading as fiction… but, oh, how wrong I was!
That first year I discovered ‘Beatie Bow’, I re-read it about 20 times, but haven’t really cracked it open since. Recently I was feeling nostalgic for one of my most dog-eared ‘keeper shelf’ lovelies, and so much time has passed since I last read ‘Beatie Bow’ that it deserved a trip down memory lane …
Ruth Park’s novel has, ironically enough, stood the test of time. The book has a bit of everything, without ever being cloying or over-the-top. There’s teen angst in the form of Abigail’s absentee father. A superb fantasy time-travel plot to make H. G. Wells proud, lovely little romantic asides, and plenty of action, along with stinging sadness. And to top it all off, the book is also thoroughly Australian and set against an iconic and fascinating backdrop.
The book hinges on its Sydney-setting. It’s intricate to the plot, but also makes for some wonderful imagery and atmosphere. When Abigail first wakes up in 1873, it’s the lack of iconic Sydney landmarks that triggers her dawning realization… and even re-reading this scene some twelve years later, I still felt goose-bumps at the big reveal;
‘The Bridge has gone, too,’ she whispered. No broad lighted deck strode across the little peninsula, no great arch with its winkling ruby at the highest point – nothing. The flower-like outline of the Opera House was missing.
From there the novel follows Abigail as she takes up residence with Beatie Bow’s immigrated Scottish family. Her drunkard Da, cousin Dovey, brother Judah, and her beloved Granny. They are a peculiar but welcoming bunch. Granny and Beatie Bow speak often about the ‘Gift’, which allows Beatie to travel forwards in time… and Abigail is anxious for Beatie to weave her odd magic to get her back to modern-day Sydney and home.
But while stuck with Beatie Bow’s family, Abigail develops strong feelings for her older brother, Judah, and becomes reluctant to leave him behind. He is promised to Dovey, but Abigail can’t help the pull she feels towards him, marking the first time in her life that she has felt a connection to someone enough to let them see behind her armour;
She jumped and blushed.
‘What’s the matter, Abby? For you seem sad today.’
‘I think – I think –’ She swallowed. Surely she wasn’t going to cry? She looked away. ‘I think this is my last day.’
‘Did Granny say so?’
Abigail managed a smile. ‘I have gifts of my own, you know.’
‘Ah, Abby love, don’t go! Not to that grievous world you’ve described. Stay here with us.’
His arms were around her. Her hat fell off into the water and floated away. His cheek rubbed against hers, and she put up her hand and stroked his face.
‘Why, Abby, dinna weep, you must not, what’s there to weep about on this bright day?’
But she couldn’t stop. A huge shameful gulping hiccup came out of her. Judah grinned.
‘Don’t laugh at me, damn you!’ cried Abigail.
‘Why, Abby –’ he said, as though astonished. ‘My little one, my Abby.’
I remember that Abigail and Judah’s romance was one of the first I read, and actually enjoyed as a young adult. In the past I treated romance storylines the same way that Fred Savage’s character does in ‘The Princess Bride’ movie (“is this a kissing book?”). But Ruth Park wrote a really innocently sweet love story between Judah and Abigail, that does sort of sneak up on you (the same way it does for Abigail). There is a lesson for Abigail to learn, in her feelings for Judah (when he’s promised to Dovey) that translates to her mother’s predicament with her father back in present-day. But Ruth Park is never heavy-handed with this lesson, and as a result Abigail and readers come to the inevitable conclusion with a sense of deep meaning and quiet appreciation.
‘Playing Beatie Bow’ is a deserving Australian classic, which has stood the test of time. Ruth Park’s novel is cunning and delightful, weaving fantasy elements with colonial history, while putting a family saga front-and-centre amidst a teenage girl’s first lessons in love and loss. A wonderful novel, and upon re-reading I am happily reminded why it’s still a favourite of mine.