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My 7 year old daughter was reading Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park and not understanding a lot of it. I remembered loving the story but couldn’t remember much of what happens, particularly the old Orkney speech and the historical aspects of daily life in Sydney in the 1800s. So I offered to read it to her. Over a period of many months we snuggled together, often with my 5 year old son as well, as I read it aloud.
Playing Beatie Bow is set in Sydney, in the historic Rocks district. It combines magic realism with historical fiction to create an enthralling world. Abigail is from the present day Sydney (Late 1970s) and stumbles into the past into colonial times. She gets trapped in the past with the Bow family who are from Orkney and are blessed with a gift for seeing across time and space.
Park brings the world of the Bow family vividly to life and I fell in love with Dovey, Grandma and Judah, while pitying Beatie, Mr Bow and Gibbie. There is a chilling scene with a brothel that I skim read so as not to have to explain the details to my children but otherwise I explained everything to them as we went along. Park’s attention to household details like furniture, clothing, bathing rituals and clothe washing were edifying for our children.
I tried reading the Orkney speech in modern Australian English but it didn’t work, so instead I did my best to use an Orkney accent. At the end of each passage of speech I would then check whether our children had understood and explain the foreign vocabulary. We also discussed the magic realism and what was the significance of the gift and how the time-space aspects worked. Throughthe final few chapters my voice was choked with tears and our children were puzzled at the strength of my emotions. I wonder when will come the time, if ever, that they feel the emotions of a protagonist as passionately as they are written?
All 4 of us thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful book and I’m grateful to the mother of my daughter’s friend that gave it to my daughter as a birthday present. Not only did we love the story and the writing style but we loved sharing the story together in the oral tradition. Since my daughter really cracked reading she is normally ensconced in a book and with my work and travel schedule we don’t have many rituals together but this was a wonderful bonding experience.
I unreservedly recommend this excellent book to everyone and if the reader is less than 10 years old I recommend some assistance from an adult with some of the adult themes.