Book Review: Playing Beatie Bow
By Ruth Park
Abigail Kirk was an ordinary enough fourteen-year-old gir, except that she could not understand the adults around her. Why had her father gone off with someone much younger than her mother? And why, now that he wanted to come back, was her mother agreeable. What did love mean?
It was while she was angry and resentful about the whole thing that she began to watch children playing a game called Beatie Bow. She had never seen the game before, nor the odd child who always seemed to be watching but never taking part. When Abigail tried to speak to her, the child ran off into a part of the city called The Rocks. Abigail followed, and suddenly found herself in The Rocks of another time. Only the strange girl remained the same. She proved to be Beatie Bow, a child of a century earlier.
Abigail was taken in by the Bows, amid whispered comments about “the gift”, as though there were something she was supposed to do. She didn’t want to stay until she met a marvelous boy named Judah. And then for the first time she began to grasp the meaning of love. But why was she in the past, and would she ever again see her own time?
Adult Point of View
Playing Beatie Bow was named the best children’s book of the year in Australia in 1981.
Playing Beatie Bow has one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of the working class during the Victorian Era. The smells, lack of washing, clothes and food are all explained in wonderful detail. Gibbie, the youngest son, had a morbid fascination over his own death. I did not like the character Beatie Bow, she was shrill and beastly. The detail exhibited of how tenuous life was in the horrible conditions the working class lived through was amazing. It was fascinating to see how the people in the poor neighborhood would ban together for survival as well as watch a building burn down as though it were entertainment.
There is a disturbing scene where Abigail is caught by an insalubrious individual who intends to turn her into a doxy. Prostitution was a large problem in Britain and so presumably also in Australia. Generally prostitutes were from the working class and needed to supplement their income or were harassed into the situation. Factory workers, seamstresses, and servants were the most likely women to become prostitutes and so I’m not sure how realistic an abduction of a common girl off the street would be as Park portrayed in Playing Beatie Bow.
Abigail has a maudlin love for Jonah, which was annoying. And now through this experience she can better understand her parents’ love for one another. At one point Abigail’s mother had told her daughter that she had been selfish to never have thought what her father’s affair had done to her, as his wife. This was a disturbing message. Children are inherently selfish, and Abigail’s world was destroyed when her father walked out on her and her mother. It seems highly unlikely that any child would consider the affects on their parents. For Abigail and her mother to blithely accept him back into their lives and on his terms seemed naive. To expect a child who has gone through the pain of her father’s affair to get over her “selfish” feelings in a couple of days is unrealistic. At one point Abigail tells her father she understands saying, “You don’t have to talk about it, Dad. I know how is was. You thought she was just a kid, and then you found out she was in love with you, and things got complicated.” (p. 176). I thought their conversation was beyond stupid. Abigail was expected to adapt to her parents’ relationship regardless of her own feelings, and she does.
In the final scenes Abigail completes the circle with the Bow family, as expected, and is on the brink of love. I hope her experience is better than her mother’s.
In conclusion, I liked the description of the working class of Victorian Australia, but the social relationships were too unrealistic. I can’t say that I loved it enough to give it an award.