Friday, December 17, 2010

Ruth Park (1917-2010): A Tribute

One of Australia's finest writers, Ruth Park, has died aged 93 years. She was born in New Zealand in 1917 and moved to Sydney to marry D'Arcy Niland. Together, they raised five children all the while struggling as freelance writers. 

She began writing early, contributing poems and stories to the New Zealand Herald's children's page, and later the Auckland Star. She also contributed to overseas newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Joy Hooton's in her survey of Park's life comments:
"Her formal education was conventional; in secondary college it was gained in part by means of a National Scholarship which a dedicated nun and 'the best teacher [she] ever had' pushed her into winning. Far more important was the self education she rapidly received from witnessing the struggles, disappointments, frustrations, failings, achievements and aspirations of members of her family and community."
Ruth Park's career as a novelist took off when she won the inaugural Sydney Morning Herald literary competition in 1946 for her first novel 'The Harp in the South'. This was part of a trilogy that included 'Missus', 'The Harp in the South' and 'Poor Man's Orange'. 'The Harp in the South' is the story of an Irish family living in the slums (at that time) of Surrey Hills. The story portrays just how tough life could be in Sydney at that time and offers a picture of Surrey Hills that included poverty, teenage sex, wife-beating and murder.  The setting for her story was realistically based on her observations of life in the area while living above a small shop in Devonshire Street.  The book was a huge success and was eventually translated into 37 languages.

She was a very generous woman. In the mid 1980s my eldest daughter and I had just read 'Playing Beattie Bow' (she was about 11 years-old). This was one of her earliest introductions to time-slip historical fantasy. She read the book many times and loved it so much that I bought her a hard cover copy as a birthday present and sent it to Ruth Park asking her to sign it. Not only did she sign it, she sent (from Norfolk Island where she was living at the time) a second book 'Callie's Castle' for my youngest daughter, who she described as 'Her secret friend'. As well, she wrote a two-page letter to me about literature and her writing. This led to a number of exchanges over the years about books and writing.

The editor of the Cambridge History of Australian Literature, Peter Pierce said:
"She can properly be regarded as a child of the Depression and a marvellous chronicler of that time. She was a prolific writer, from the social realism of her novels to the children's books. She was one of those remarkable New Zealanders who made a life and career here.''
Her Books

She was to publish nine adult novels. These included 'Poor Man's Orange' and 'Swords and Crowns and Rings'. The latter won the Miles Franklin Award in 1977.

As well, she wrote almost 50 children's books, including one of my favourite Australian adolescent novels 'Playing Beatie Bow'.   She also wrote the timeless series of 'The Muddle-Headed Wombat' (15 in all) that was based on her radio serial that ran from 1957 to 1971.

She wrote non-fiction as well, including many feature articles for major newspapers like the 'Sydney Morning Herald' and 'The National Times'. Some of these focussed on the Depression and Sydney's early history that she was always able to bring to life. Her non-fiction also included an autobiography, 'The Drums Go Bang!' in 1956 (with D'Arcy Niland) and 'The Companion Guide to Sydney'.

Fantasy was common in Park's writing for children. Her work also has the wonderful ability to communicate a sense of real characters and life situations. Her wonderful ability to write authentic history was also evident in much of her work. Nowhere in her children's work are these combined better than in 'Playing Beattie Bow'.

The 'Muddle-Headed Wombat' series that was illustrated by the wonderful Noela Young have delighted many young readers. Characteristic of all of her work the Muddle-Headed Wombat' series was written with the imaginations of children in mind. The impossible is always possible for children. Park understood this. Her book 'When the Wind Changed' again demonstrates this (who could forget her daughter Deborah Niland's wonderful illustrations) brilliantly.

Her other children's books included 'The Hole in the Hill' (1961) which drew on her New Zealand experience 'Come Danger, Come Darkness' (1978), 'The Big Brass Key' (1983), 'The Gigantic Balloon' (1975). Her books also show some of her ongoing interests, including the sea and islands in 'The Sixpenny Island' (1968), 'My Sister Sif' (1986) and 'Shaky Island' (1962) and an interest in the supernatural seen in 'Playing Beatie Bow'.

A number of her books were also made into films, including 'Playing Beatie Bow' and 'Harp in the South' which was made into a successful television mini series.

Her Awards

Ruth Park won many awards but these included the Children's Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year in 1981, for 'Playing Beatie Bow'. She also won the Children's Book Award in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards in 1986 for 'When the Wind Changed'. She was also awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by my own university, the University of New South Wales in 1994. She won the 1977 Miles Franklin Award for 'Swords and Crowns and Rings'. She was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1987.

Other posts and resources

Joy Hooton's excellent essay 'Ruth park: A Celebration' HERE

Full bibliography of Ruth Park's books HERE


Erin said...

I was sad to hear that - I have always loved Ruth Park's books.

Trevor Cairney said...

Nice to hear from you Erin, it is sad. She was a great writer. I'm glad children (and adults) will still be able to enjoy her wonderful books. Trevor