Ruth Park wrote novels, memoir and books for children. She grew up in New Zealand, but lived for many years in Australia with husband and writer, D’Arcy Niland. Her fiction drew on her experiences in both locations. Park’s best-known New Zealand novel is, One-a-Pecker, Two-a-Pecker (1957), a South Island goldfields novel. Park’s autobiographical novel, A Fence around the Cuckoo (1992), won the Melbourne Age Book of the Year Award for non-fiction. Park was also a children’s book author of some note.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Park, Ruth (1917–2010), novelist, autobiographer and children’s writer, was born and educated in New Zealand but has spent much of her adult life in Australia and has written extensively on both countries. Much of her childhood was spent in a small King Country town, and she has drawn on that experience to write fiction in which Maori–Pakeha relationships in rural communities play an important role. In The Drums Go Bang! (1956) she and the Australian writer D’Arcy Niland tell amusingly how they came to meet as young journalists, how Park went to Sydney to marry Niland (in 1942) and how they then travelled adventurously through the Australian ‘outback’ before settling in Sydney. Their efforts to get established as full-time writers are described vividly and reveal much about the conditions of literary life in both countries during the war years. In Sydney they lived in a slum area called Surry Hills and made strenuous efforts with partial success to get work published in newspapers, journals and through the broadcasting system.
True success, in fact a major succès de scandale, was achieved when Ruth won the Sydney Morning Herald novel competition in 1946 with The Harp in the South, which was serialised in that year and published as a book in 1948. It is set in Surry Hills and tells of the struggles of the Darcy family trying to live worthwhile lives in that environment, which is described as horrendously disadvantaged. Not only the Darcys but also the colourful range of other characters meet adversity with humour and courage. Reactions to the book, especially in Sydney, ranged from high praise to shocked fury, some of its readers claiming that such social conditions as those described were impossible in Australia. Park followed up her success with a sequel telling the further adventures of the Darcy family under the title Poor Man’s Orange (1949). By the time Niland published his own best-seller The Shiralee in 1955, the couple were known as people who courageously combined parenthood with full-time writing careers. Altogether they have five children, two of whom, Kilmenny and Deborah Niland, have been credited with the illustrations to some of Park’s children’s books. After the death of Niland in 1967 Park moved to London for some time, but later returned to Sydney and then, in 1973, moved to Norfolk Island, where she has lived ever since.
New Zealand responses to her early books included a review by ‘G.W.’ in the Auckland Star, 11 Jan. 1950, which suggested that she had found more colourful characters in Sydney slums than would be possible in New Zealand and nonetheless challenged her to write equally vividly of the country of her birth. She met this challenge with The Witch’s Thorn (1951), set in a small King Country town, Te Kano. It is not short of vivid writing, but seems more credible to foreign readers than to local ones. In part it reads as if it were directed at the tourist market, and it has been one of her best-selling books outside New Zealand. After a purple-prose description of the country it opens with Johnny Gow jumping into the local geyser just as it is due to go off. There is little left of him, but the remainder of the book is a flashback covering the four years which led to his death. Mainly the events are seen through the eyes of Bethell, a girl who is abandoned by her teenage mother and brought up by family members who are totally unsympathetic towards her. She finds warmth, love and understanding in a Maori family. She is told by Pearlie Gow that her father, Johnny Gow, is also Bethell’s father. Full of excitement she goes to see him, but is thrust angrily away. The family life that Johnny is trying to preserve in this way is anything but happy, however, and in his thoughts there are gloomy regrets for Queenie, Bethell’s mother, and angry hatred for his wife. It is this frustration that ultimately drives him to suicide, while Bethell continues to find comfort with her Maori friends.
A Power of Roses (1953) takes up the story of life in Sydney’s slums again, but in Pink Flannel (1955) Park returns to the small-town setting of Te Kano. As a child the narrator lived there with ‘four radiant aunts’ and it is the story of their lives that she wishes to tell. They are dominated by their irascible Swedish father, who stands between them and married happiness. For example, when Louise falls in love with the Pig Man, the father is furious and confiscates the phonograph Louise had received from her lover. Parallel to this story of gentle women who lack the strength to defy their patriarchal tyrant are the ventures of the narrator into the warmer world of the Maori, where generational conflicts are at a minimum. There is some sensitive commentary on the ‘colour prejudice’ of such a community in the 1950s: the Pakeha children like and admire the Maori ones but ‘When they left school they discovered they had put on social inequality with the long trousers’. The narrator observes that there can be happiness in the poorest Maori hovel and unhappiness in the well-off but morally restricted house of sisters. Ironically, when her grandfather sees the (constricted) love life of his daughters and ‘cuts them off without a penny’, they are all delighted. This is their moment of release, and the novel ends with the wedding of Louisa and the Pig Man.
Park’s best-known New Zealand novel is One-a-Pecker, Two-a-Pecker (1957), a South Island goldfields novel, reissued in the US as The Frost and the Fire (1958). The Good-Looking Women (1961) is a study in religious hysteria with a tragic outcome. After a long pause, Park’s next adult novel was Swords and Crowns and Rings (1977), the story of an Australian country town from 1907 to 1931. At its centre is Jackie Hanna, a dwarf, who suffers all the disadvantages and miseries arising from his deformity but retains a proud human spirit which ultimately triumphs. The background of World War 1 and the Depression are vividly conveyed and something of the rough city life of Sydney slums is recaptured from earlier novels.
Ruth Park has also had a considerable career as the author of children’s books. Her stories about the ‘Muddle-Headed Wombat’ have been translated into many languages and sold all over the world. The Ship’s Cat (1961) is a New Zealand tale of a boy and a cat shipwrecked in early days and being taken over by a group of Maori. The boy, Barnaby, is saved from murder by a girl called Te Inu, who also turns out to be a lost white child, once called Margaret. On encountering moa the Maori show fear, but the cat shows that the moa are harmless. Barnaby suggests burning the tussock to drive the moa against the enemy tribe, a ploy which succeeds. Finally Barnaby and Margaret are picked up by a whaler in Dusky Sound. The Hole in the Hill is a longer story of an encounter of white children with Maori, set in more recent times. It includes a series of wild adventures and encounters with tapu in an old cave. The Shaky Island is set on an imaginary island near Australia where a huge turtle is persuaded to leave a cave, where it had caused the island to be constantly shaking. Uncle Matt’s Mountain (1962) is a tale of the Tarawera eruption. Nuki and the Sea Serpent (1969) is set in a Maori community but is concerned with the difference between ‘fiction’ and ‘lying’. Merchant Campbell (1976) is an historical novel of early Sydney.
Park’s autobiographical A Fence Around the Cuckoo (1992) won the Melbourne Age Book of the Year Award for non-fiction, and was followed by Fishing in the Styx (1993).
Note: Ruth Park passed away in December 2010, aged 93.
Updated January 2017.