Playing Beatie Bow

Playing Beatie Bow Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ruth Park's Playing Beatie Bow. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ruth Park

Ruth Park was born in New Zealand, and lived a transient, working-class life for many years as a result of her father’s work as a manual laborer on road and bridge projects in northern New Zealand. Ruth doggedly pursued a serious education in spite of her family’s frequent moves, and after studying at St. Benedict’s college and Auckland University, she went on to become a contributor and editor to the children’s pages of several major New Zealand newspapers. In 1942, she moved to Australia and married another writer, D’Arcy Niland, and began publishing novels in the late 1940s—beginning with her groundbreaking debut, The Harp in the South, which unflinchingly exposed the gritty reality of life in Sydney’s poorest quarters. Park wrote several novels for adults, a series of memoirs, and an enormous number of radio plays, but at a certain point in her career began writing almost exclusively for children. Her books for young adults explore themes of longing, the difficulties of fitting in, and the journey of discovering one’s place in the world.
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Historical Context of Playing Beatie Bow

Abigail Kirk is flung backwards in time to the Sydney of 1873—a time when Australia was not a unified country but rather a series of colonies between whom tensions and rivalries over trade and cultural differences were high. The Rocks district—in Abigail’s 1980 Sydney—was rapidly being gentrified, redeveloped, and transformed into a commercial area, aimed at drawing tourists and shoppers, and so Abigail’s shock at discovering her neighborhood as a rough, dangerous area rife with unspeakable poverty, crime, and disease is palpable. It is not just the physical changes to her hometown, though, that Abigail must contend with when she is thrown into the past—the cultural differences also overwhelm her. As she is forced to wear stiff woolen clothes, use chamber pots and forgo daily baths, Abigail longs for her comfortable, modern life, and as she witnesses the horrible ways women are treated through her encounters with Beatie, Dovey, and the prostitutes in the “Suez Canal,” an exceptionally dangerous enclave of the Rocks, Abigail recognizes how privileged and easy her “real” life is, and longs for the world which once bored and even repulsed her.

Other Books Related to Playing Beatie Bow

Books for young adults that feature a split in time are common—they provide a way for children who might be spoiled, stuck-up, unhappy, or somewhat at sea to reach back through time and contextualize their own difficulties in the larger scheme of human history. In Playing Beatie Bow, Abigail Kirk, devastated by her parents’ separation and having grown more than a touch nasty and impetuous as a result, is sent back to the 1800s where she is forced to live a life much harder than her own relatively cushy one in the early 1980s. Similarly, The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen tells the story of Hannah Stern, a young Jewish girl in contemporary New York who, after balking at the boring tradition of her family’s yearly Passover seder, is sent back in time to 1942 Poland and forced to live through the Holocaust. The sobering events of the past allow Hannah to see her family—their history, their traditions, and the gravity of the suffering that has led to their present-day happiness and liberation—in a new light. Other novels for young people that wrestle with the tensions between vastly different time periods—and the ways in which time travel allows young teens to appreciate their “boring” or unsatisfactory present moment—include Both Sides of Time by Caroline B. Cooney and The Girl With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke.
Key Facts about Playing Beatie Bow
  • Full Title: Playing Beatie Bow
  • When Written: Late 1970s
  • Where Written: Sydney, Australia
  • When Published: 1980
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Fiction; historical fiction; coming-of-age tale
  • Setting: The Rocks District, Sydney, Australia
  • Climax: Abigail Kirk finally understands that the reason for her journey to the past has been to help ensure that the psychic “Gift” is passed on.
  • Antagonist: Beatie Bow
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for Playing Beatie Bow

Bow on the Big Screen. In 1986, Playing Beatie Bow had become so popular as a defining Australian novel that it was adapted as a film. Despite the filmmakers’ ambitious investments in recreating Sydney’s Rocks district as a fully-fleshed set constructed on an abandoned industrial site, it performed rather poorly at the box office—even so, both the novel and the film remain seminal Australian works.