Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 29, 2009

Swords and Crowns and Rings (1977), by Ruth Park

Swords and Crowns and RingsSwords and Crowns and Rings, by Ruth Park, won the Miles Franklin Award in 1977.  It seems to be out of print – though you can still buy it in audio book format at Fishpond (see Swords and Crowns and Rings: 15 Spoken Word CDs)  – so I am indebted to my good friend and fellow ANZ LitLovers member Jenny for my copy.

(Availability update Oct 2012: it’s not out-of-print any more, thanks to Michael Heyward’s Text Classics, see below for where to get it).

It’s a wonderful book, brilliantly capturing the mood of the Great Depression with unforgettable characters.

I still can’t comprehend why the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature doesn’t include anything by Ruth Park. I know, I know, it’s puerile to join the chorus of the disappointed: for reasons of space an anthology always has to omit various writers, and presumably the editors had good and valid reasons for their choices.  But Park is iconic, and an opportunity has been missed to re-introduce her to lovers of Australian literature.  (Actually, Park can claim both Australian and New Zealand identity: she was born in Auckland in 1923, but lived most of her life in Australia.)

She wrote nine adult novels, of which three are known to me: The Harp in the South (1948); Poor Man’s Orange (1949); and Swords and Crowns and Rings.  But for the best part of twenty years – between the publication of The Frost and the Fire in 1958 and Swords and Crowns and Rings  in 1977 – she published mainly children’s books, the best-loved of which is The Muddle-Headed Wombat.  She featured often in the CBCA Awards and won the Book of the Year in 1981 for Playing Beatie Bow.   She was also a distinguished writer of non-fiction, winning numerous awards and receiving an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of New South Wales.

But Ruth Park is not good enough for the PEN.   Ah well, the ANZ LitLovers LitBlog will do what it can to redress this omission!

Swords and Crowns and Rings is the enchanting story of Jackie Hanna, a dwarf, and Cushie Moy, whose friendship as children matures into a love that survives hardship, misunderstanding and a social chasm that would separate lesser mortals.  They spend their childhood in an unremarkable Australian country town before World War I, where Jackie grows up believing that he can do and be anything.  His step-father, Jerry Hanna, (‘the Nun’), is the rock on which this solid family life is based; Peggy Hanna (who should surely be played by Anne Phelan in the TV series that begs to be made) is his indefatigable mother.  Together they keep a grocer’s shop, not smart enough for the Moys, who patronise the Hannas and express alarm that Dorothy (Cushie) might learn ‘common expressions’. (p24)


Circumstances dictate that Jackie, despite his obvious intelligence and the ambitions of his mother, has to leave the cocoon of a supportive family to find work.  On his cousins’ remote farm there is a rude awakening, and he is tested by cruelties that beggar belief.  Not only that, he is manipulated into a marriage just at the time that Cushie needs him most.  They become separated by worlds so different it seems incredible  that they live in the same country.

Jackie is a wonderful hero.  He suffers physical and emotional torment and losses that would crush a lesser man, but his spirit is indestructible.  The Great Depression savages his life and prospects,  and on the road with the unemployed he struggles to shoulder burdens made more onerous by betrayals that puncture the myth of mateship among the poor. Cushie suffers emotional deprivation and intense loneliness, sustained only by memories and ideals about social justice.  Her life among the privileged of Sydney seems at times as bleak as Jackie’s on the farm.

Yet this is not a pessimistic book.  Certainly it brings the hardships of Australian life from 1907 to 1932 vividly to life, and it reveals the inequities of our fledgling democracy in all its harsh realities, but it’s about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.   Park writes with passion, but also with affectionate humour about her characters.  It is a love story with a social conscience, and one that I think should be widely read.

Author: Ruth Park
Title: Swords and Crowns and Rings
Publisher: Sphere Books 1978
ISBN 017 0053911
Source: Gift from Jenny (ANZ LitLovers)

*The audio book is read by Deirdre Rubenstein, and it’s produced by Bolinda Audio Books catalogue BAB 070531. ISBN 9781740939591 See the  NLA catalogue entry.

Swords and Crowns and Rings (Text Classics)Availability Update: fantastic news, Swords and Crowns and Rings is now available from Text Classics.
Fishpond: Swords and Crowns and Rings (Text Classics)


  1. I adore Ruth Park!!! Thank you for including her here. I’m exhausted by the sheer contemplation of how many glorious books there are out there to re-read.

    Also loved her autobiographies? They were that weren’t they?

    I have an original painting on my wall by one of her twin daughters, Kilmeny Niland, of a very ugly little girl in an old-fashioned green dress. I bought it from Strawberry Hill Gallery in Surry Hills in Sydney, a lifetime ago. But I DO love my ugly little girl that much more because of the tenuous connection.


    • Kilmeny Niland died just a little while ago, did you know? I loved her work and so do the kids at school. I didn’t know about her autobiographies – there are 6 n/f works listed on Wikipedia (click the link for her name in the post above) do you mean one of those? Though I think her work must have been strongly autobiographical, from what I can see of her bio there. Lisa


  2. So pleased to hear you enjoyed ‘Swords Crowns and Rings’. You mentioned ‘The Harp In the South’ and I have a Penguin edition of the trilogy in one volume which begins with Missus, following with The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange. There are several novels listed in this edition of which you may already be aware. ‘The Witch’s Thorn’,’A Power of Roses’, ‘Dear Hearts and Gentle People’,’The Frost and The Fire’, ‘Good Looking Women’and ‘The Serpent’s Delight’. She also wrote a non fiction book along with her husband D’Arcy Niland titled ‘The Drums Go Bang’.

    Possible an author to consider nominating for our end of year classic selection at AnzLitLovers in 2010. Though you did mention she is out of print so I will need to check availability.


    • It was a lovely book, quite inspirational, I think. The Harp in the South is available as one of those $10 Penguin reprints, so we could certainly nominate that one! Lisa


  3. Haven’t read the review cos of the spoilers. I am now 3/4 through the audiobooks and am not sure when we’ll get to finish them. But what a saga – great social history there, as Ruth Park does so well.


  4. I love Ruth Park, and was incensed she didn’t make it into the PEN anthology!

    Her autobiographical volumes A Fence around the Cuckoo and Fishing in the Styx are both wonderful and well worth seeking out.


  5. Hi Sarah
    We shall have to have a blog led protest about their perfidy in leaving her out LOL!


  6. I adore Ruth Park also. Comparing the values and difficult lives of her characters to today’s Australians makes me wonder if she would even recognise her fellow countrymen if she were alive today!
    The two of them: Ruth and her husband D’arcy Niland have brought so many tears to my eyes – not just for the sadness, but for the wonderful way they have captured these inspring Aussie characters.
    The film “The Shiralee” with Bryan Brown was a pretty good interpretation of D’arcy’s book. Isn’t it about time we had more film versions of these wonderful books so that more Australians could be exposed to the stories? Through film and television, people will then rediscover the books!

    Thank you for the opportunity to add to your review. Kathy


    • Hello Kathy, I agree, I’d like to see more Australian films based on our literary heritage. TV stations used to commission them, and the ABC produced some excellent series too, but these days they all cry poor. If they weren’t so busy outbidding each other for rights to broadcast ephemeral sport, they’d have the money to spend on an enduring legacy instead.


  7. […] me from my own understanding of the text. The reader for the audiobook of Ruth Park’s Swords and crowns and rings (link here is to ANZLitLovers review), for example, irritated me intensely with her voices and […]


  8. […] Ruth Park, Swords and crowns and rings 2010 February 14 tags: Australian writers by whisperinggums Note to self: never again “read” an audiobook over a long period, such as, say, 5 months! This is how I read Ruth Park’s engrossing 1977 Miles Franklin award-winning novel, Swords and crowns and rings. It was not hard to keep up with the plot as it’s pretty straightforward – and powerful. It is hard, though, over such a time to keep up with and remember all the nuances in her writing and expression and the way they affect character development and thematic strands. For a nice review of the book by someone who read it more sensible, please see my friend Lisa’s, of ANZLitLovers, here. […]


  9. Hi! Ruth Park is my grandmother so it gives me great pride to have stumbled upon this post. As an update, my grandma is still alive, she has a sharp mind and is SO in touch with current events you don’t go short on interesting conversation aroung her :)

    My mum, Kilmeny Niland, passed away last year… much too young. I felt very proud to read that her work is loved by you and the children. She will have another children’s book released this year that I wrote and my aunt, Deborah, finished, so we’ll ensure that her work lives on for a long long time.

    Thanks for having such good taste! :D Feel free to email me sometime.


  10. Hello Tom, how lovely to hear from you and how wonderful to know that Ruth Park is still with us. Her books have given enormous pleasure to so many readers over the years, I hope you are all spoiling her nicely in her old age!

    Your mother’s death is a great loss to Australian art and literature but it is good news to know that a new book is forthcoming. It will certainly make its way onto the shelves at my school as well in Christmas presents for my great nieces in Wales. Even though they’re still very small, I make a point of sending them favourite Aussie children’s picture books as gifts and they already have one by Kilmeny (as well as by Mem Fox and Jackie French.)

    Thanks so much for getting in touch:)


  11. […] y fue posteriormente traducida a 37 idiomas, después publicaría otras ocho novelas, entre ellas Crowns and Rings que obtuvo el prestigioso premio Miles Franlkin en […]


  12. […] literary couple. She was more successful than him in the sense that she won the Miles Franklin for Swords and Crowns and Rings, plus her trilogy that consists of Missus (1985); The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s […]


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