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