While watching neighbourhood children playing a game they call “Beatie Bow”, Abigail Kirk sees another spectator, a young girl who remains unnoticed by the other children. Abigail’s curiosity leads her to follow the girl who runs to escape Abigail’s attention.
During their chase through the streets and alleys of The Rocks, there is a change in the surroundings and Abigail finds herself in 1870s Sydney. An accident results in Abigail being cared for by the young girl’s family who see Abigail as “the stranger” a mysterious visitor who always appears at significant times in their family history.
The stranger’s significance relates to the passing on of “the gift” of second sight from one generation of the family to the next. Granny, the current holder of the gift is growing weaker and the identity of its next custodian is uncertain. Abigail is not able to return to her own time until her role as the stranger has been fulfilled.
The consequences of its fulfilment affect not only the 1870s family, but also Abigail and her family in the present day. Through her journey Abigail learns to appreciate life and relationships in her own time and eventually finds hope for the future.
One of the appealing things about this story is its setting. I became quite familiar with The Rocks area when I lived in Sydney. It was perhaps my favourite part of the city. Right next to the harbour it maintains a lot of its historical character with many original buildings remaining intact. Gloria and I went there a lot, either to a favourite Irish pub for a Guinness or to the markets on the weekend, and sometimes to walk along the harbour, round circular quay to the Opera House. For a few years it was our favourite place to be on Australia Day, braving the media helicopter invasion to see the end of the annual ferry race.
I can’t remember where or when I bought Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, but it was many years ago and I bought it because I enjoyed the film adaptation.
While watching the film I could recognise some of the locations used. Now after many years of neglect I’ve read the book, and my familiarity with its setting helped me better imagine the places being described.
Time travel has been recurring thing in my reading and viewing this year. The next book on my list is Connie Willis’s All Clear, the continuation of the story started in Blackout and I recently finished For All Time by Meredith Resce.
Each of the books relies on a different means of moving through time. With Willis’s books a new technology makes it possible. Ruth Parks relies on “the gift”, a more paranormal approach: a step beyond clairvoyance in which a physical link to the past creates a kind of bridge between two times.
The idea of visiting the past brings up interesting questions about how much our knowledge of the present would prepare us for life in the past. Would it help us avoid potential dangers or could that knowledge even help us change the past to avert tragedy or prevent injustice? And if we change the past, what affect would that have on our own time? Would our own present even exist if the past was changed?