Looking for something to read over the weekend?
Nothing on your book radar that is screaming ‘read me’?
Then check out this week’s Five-star Friday recommendation . It may be old. It may be new. But it is a book that is special to me, one that has captured both my imagination and my heart.
EXCERPT: My mother, I believe, had a small nervous breakdown. For weeks she stayed in bed, the best place to be in that fearsome cold. For it was fearsome, unlike anything else I have ever experienced. Some oddity of topography trapped frigid air in low lying areas, so that frost fell upon unthawed frost, and in secluded patches built up into muddy, earthstained banks. The water tank had a hand’s breadth of ice on its surface; in the mornings I had to break up this floe in order to get a bucketful of water.
But Tanekaha Valley had stars. Because of its depth, its tall, precipitous hills, the stars above it shone so close, so clear, that no one could doubt they were suns and planets. Breathtaking they were, and many a night I forgot to breathe, standing out there in the violent cold, gazing upwards, bemused by the fantastic millions of worlds that burned or flowered in space.
ABOUT THIS BOOK: This first volume of Ruth Park’s autobiography is an account of her isolated childhood in the rainforests of New Zealand, her convent education which encouraged her love of words and writing, and the bitter years of the Depression.She then entered the rough-and-tumble world of journalism and began a reluctant correspondence with a young Australian writer.
In 1942, Park moved to Sydney and married that writer, D’Arcy Niland. There she would write The Harp in the South, the first of her classic Australian novels. A Fence Around the Cuckoo is the story of one of Australia’s best storytellers and how she learnt her craft.
MY THOUGHTS: I have dallied over this book, strolled slowly through its pages, stopping here and there to indulge in my own memories of the same town some twenty-five years later, and comparing it to now, almost ninety years on from when Ruth lived here.
I have wandered down Nettie Street, wondering which of the old houses that still grace the street might have been where Ruth lived at one point, or if it has fallen/ burned down and been replaced by a newer one. I have searched fruitlessly for the large limestone rock.
The shops she mentions in the main street are all long gone, maybe not physically, but definitely their occupants and none of the names were familiar to me. I wish now that I had listened more closely to my grandparents as they talked about the town as it was when they first moved here in 1910. Ruth also made me remember the town as it was when I was a child, most of those shops long gone too, but a few of the families remaining in the area, but having moved on in terms of livelihoods and professions.
Her description of her aunts ‘exquisite, giggly, capricious creatures with good hearts, terrible tempers, and a soap opera approach to life in the form of fights, larks and laughter rather than anything tragic or melancholy’ brought to mind two aunts of my own, both now deceased, with whom I loved to spend school holidays revelling in the lack of rules in their homes; loving the spontaneity, the frivolity, and the glee with which they approached life.
There are a few photos in the book. I am sure that Ruth would be pleased to know that St Joseph’s Convent School still stands, albeit with a few modern additions, as does the convent house and the church, both still identical to Ruth’s photos.
Thank you, Ruth, for opening my eyes to things that I never knew about my home town. I look at it now with new eyes.
THE AUTHOR: Ruth Park was a New Zealand-born author, who spent most of her life in Australia. She was born in Auckland, and her family later moved to Te Kuiti further south in the North Island of New Zealand, where they lived in isolated areas.
During the Great Depression her working class father worked on bush roads, as a driver, on relief work, as a sawmill hand, and finally shifted back to Auckland as council worker living in a state house. After Catholic primary school Ruth won a partial scholarship to secondary school, but this was broken by periods of being unable to afford to attend. For a time she stayed with relatives on a Coromandel farming estate where she was treated like a serf by the wealthy landowner until she told the rich woman what she really thought of her.
Ruth claimed that she was involved in the Queen Street riots with her father. Later she worked at the Auckland Star before shifting to Australia in 1942. There she married the Australian writer D’Arcy Niland.
Her first novel was The Harp in the South (1948) – a story of Irish slum life in Sydney, which was translated into 10 languages. (Some critics called it a cruel fantasy because as far as they were concerned there were no slums in Sydney.) But Ruth and D’Arcy did live in Sydney slums at Surry Hills. She followed that up with Poor Man’s Orange (1949). She also wrote Missus (1985) and other novels, as well as a long-running Australian children’s radio show and scripts for film and TV. She created The Muddle-Headed Wombat series of children’s books. Her autobiographies are A Fence Around the Cuckoo (1992) and Fishing in the Styx (1993). She also wrote a novel based in New Zealand, One-a-pecker, Two-a-pecker (1957), about gold mining in Otago (later renamed The Frost and The Fire).
Park received awards in Australia and internationally.
DISCLOSURE: I own my copy of A Fence Around The Cuckoo by Ruth Park, a paperback copy published by Penguin.
If I remember correctly, I rescued this from consignment to the rubbish dump by turning up late to a garage sale. It is a little battered and stained, but very treasured, never to be entrusted to the removal truck when we move house, which we do regularly.
This was my second reading, which I enjoyed even more than my first. I will be reading this again.
Please refer to my Goodreads.com profile page or the about page on sandysbookaday.wordpress.com for an explanation of my rating system. This review and others are also published on my Goodreads.com page https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2720700142