Campfire stories, murder in the dark, Ring a Ring o’ Roses – kids love creepy games. In Ruth Park’s 1980 young adult classic, Playing Beatie Bow, a seemingly innocuous playground ritual thrusts fourteen-year-old Abigail Kirk into a terrifying battle to return to her family. After following a strange girl (Beatie Bow) from the park down an alleyway, Abigail is transported back in time to 1873. Though the time has shifted, her surrounds – Sydney’s harbour-side Rocks area – remain vaguely familiar. She is taken in by a shopkeeper’s family, who believe her to be a mysterious ‘Stranger’ destined to preserve their family’s psychic gift. The Bows want Abigail to stay, but she is determined to get back to her own family and century. She calls upon every ounce of courage and intellect to navigate her way through an extraordinary, and sometimes horrifying, adventure.
For the book, Park won and was shortlisted for several local and international awards, including the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year. In 1986 the story was adapted into a Donald Crombie film, and today the story is still taught in schools around Australia. Via her rich symbolism, vivid descriptions and masterful dialogue, Park creates a wondrously layered story of a young girl discovering she has the strength and smarts to overcome inconceivable odds. In doing so, she conjures a grimy vision of our recent history, and proves that stylistically and thematically YA writing can sit spine-to-spine with any of the greatest literature for ‘grown-ups’. Here we’ve pulled out a series of passages from the book to demonstrate the colour and shape of the fabulous language within this essential Australian classic.
Characterisation in three dimensions
‘Vincent was a bundle of bones with a puzzling smell, as though he’d wet himself six weeks earlier and not bothered to bathe. He was as sharp as a knife and had his parents sized up to the last millimetre. Abigail did not see that his face was wretched as well as cunning, and she was sincerely flattered that he hated her more than he hated everyone else.’
A multi-sensory vision of 1873 Sydney
‘The enormous stone arch of The Cut, the cutting quarried through the sandstone backbone of The Rocks, was different. It was narrower, she thought, though so many shops and stalls and barrows clustered along Argyle Street it was hard to see. Where the Bradfield Highway had roared across the top of The Cut there were now two rickety wooden bridges. Stone steps ran up one side, and on the other two tottering stairways curled upon themselves, overhung with vines and dishevelled trees, and running amongst and even across the roofs of indescribable shanties like broken-down farm sheds. These dwellings were propped up with tree trunks and railway sleepers; goats grazed on their roofs; and over all was the smell of rotting seaweed, ships, wood smoke, human ordure, and horses and harness.’
Reminders of just how far we’ve come
‘“You’ve got plenty of brains,” said Abigail.
“Aye,” said Beatie suspiciously. “And what brings you to say that?”
“Because I think you want to do other things besides learn how to feather-stitch and drop curtseys to rude rich old hags at the Ragged School.”
Beatie’s tawny eyes glittered. “True enough. I want to learn Greek and Latin like the boys. And geography. And algebra. And yet I’ll never. Gibbie will learn them afore me, and he’s next door to a mumblepate!”
“But why?” asked Abigail.
“Why, why?” cried Beatie. “Because I’m a girl, that’s why, and girls canna become scholars. Not unless their fathers are rich, and most of their daughters are learnt naught but how to dabble in paints, twiddle on the pianoforte, and make themselves pretty for a good match!”‘
Beware the twists
‘She dived into the first opening she noticed. It was so narrow she could have spanned it with her arms. Its uneven cobbles ran sluggishly with thick green slime. Pressed against the wall, she saw Beatie and Judah run past.
Suddenly a hand fastened round her ankle. She looked down and saw a frightful thing grinning gap-toothed at her. It was a legless man, on a little low trolley like a child’s push-cart. He had a big bulging forehead and fingers as sinuous as steel.
“Let me go!” panted Abigail. With her free foot she kicked at the man’s face, but he dodged her with the nimbleness of a monkey. Laughing, he dragged her closer, and bit her leg just above the ankle. The pain was bad enough, but the horror that seized the girl was unbearable.
She let out a ringing shriek. “Beatie, Judah, help, help!”
That was all she could utter, for a bag smelling of rotten fish descended over her head and was pulled tight. She was half carried, half dragged she knew not where. Abigail was a strong girl, and her hands were free. She hammered and punched, scratched and tore. Once her fingers fastened in a beard: she could tell by the bristly texture of it. She gave a great yank and a handful came out. The owner slapped her repeatedly over the ears, cursing in an accent and tones such as she had never heard.
“You’ve caught yourself no tame puss-cat there, Hannah!” a husky voice said with a chuckle. Abigail’s hands were deftly snared and tied behind her back, and the sack was whisked off her head. She was in a dark, evil-smelling room, and before her stood a mountainous woman holding a blood-spattered fist to her hairy chin. She must have weighed nearly a hundred kilos; there seemed no end to her in her full skirts and vast blouse of gaudy striped silk. Out of the sleeves poked sausagey hands covered in rings. Ferret eyes gleamed at Abigail; the sausage hands filled themselves with her hair and jerked brutally.
“I’ll have yer bald!” she yelled. Abigail shrieked at the full power of her lungs, and kicked violently at everything she could see or reach.
A hand went over her mouth. It was accustomed to holding captives thus, for it pushed her upper lip down over her teeth so that she could not bite.
“Hold on now, Hannah,” said the husky voice. “We’ve a pretty little canary bird here; she’ll go for a sweet sum, fifteen quid or more. But not if you take off all her hair at the roots.”‘