At the heart of Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow is the question of what it means to be part of a family—what one owes their family and is owed by them, and what one’s role is in continuing family legacies and traditions, however burdensome they might be. Abigail Kirk, saddened and frustrated by the pain and confusion that has marked her own family in recent years, learns through her journey back in time that though duty to one’s family is not always easy or enjoyable, it is one of the most important things in life. Park suggests that for a family to support one another in a mutual, healthy way, all members must be dedicated to loving, honoring, and helping one another. This is not an easy lesson for Abigail to learn, but by the end of the novel, she too is able to look past the small fissures and fractures in her family and find love, support, and happiness with them.
Park begins the novel by introducing a protagonist whose family seems irreparably fractured. At fourteen years old, Abigail Kirk feels betrayed by her family’s dissolution. Her father Weyland left her and her mother Kathy years ago to live with a younger woman, and just as Abigail has begun to find a way through the pain and feelings of abandonment stemming from this incident—largely by cutting her father out of her life and choosing to feel nothing towards him—Abigail’s mother Kathy announces that Weyland wants for them all to be a family again, and for Abigail and her mother to move from their home in Australia to Norway. Abigail is irate, and in disbelief when it becomes apparent that her mother, if given the choice, would likely choose to move to Norway with Weyland rather than stay in Australia with Abigail. Abigail does not want to reconcile with her father, and once she realizes that her mother is in her own way betraying Abigail as well, she longs to distance herself from her mother as well, proclaiming in a fit of rage that she would rather stay in boarding school in Australia alone than move to Norway with her family. Abigail feels alone and dejected, and does not seem to feel any sense of duty or connection to her family.
However, Abigail’s world and values are changed by circumstances beyond her control, as she is pulled into the past precisely at the height of her inner turmoil over her familial woes. Abigail is so miserable with her own family and yet still, deep down, longing for a familial connection, that she spends more and more time with the children next door, Vincent and Natalie Crown. Abigail babysits the children a few times a week, taking them to the park and playground and watching as Vincent plays a disturbing game called Beatie Bow. Natalie observes a little “furry” girl watching from the sidelines, and tells Abigail that she believes the girl is in great pain. One afternoon, after a huge fight with her mother, Abigail is walking home past the playground when she sees the little girl, and chooses to engage her in conversation. The little girl flees and Abigail follows her, and she is soon pulled through time to 1873, where she realizes that the little girl at the park was Beatie Bow herself all along. Alone and disoriented, Abigail is taken in by the Bows and the Talliskers, two branches of a large Scottish family residing in the colony of New South Wales. In attempting to flee, or at least distance herself from one family unit, she has found herself smack in the middle of another.
At first, Abigail is suspicious of the Bows and the Talliskers. She does not trust them, does not want any part in their lives, and is only concerned with getting back to her own time. She is so distressed by her surroundings that she even finds herself longing for her mother. Abigail attempts to run away, but when her escape proves disastrous and lands her captive in a whorehouse, in need of the Bow family’s rescue, she realizes that getting back to her own time will not be as easy as she thought. The Bows rescue her from peril, demonstrating that they feel a duty to Abigail even though she is not technically a blood relation. Abigail then realizes the many sacrifices the Bows and Talliskers have all made on her behalf, and begrudgingly agrees to uphold her own duty to them. The Bows and Talliskers reveal the secret truth of their family to Abigail when she returns from the whorehouse: there is a Gift of second sight that has been passed down through the Tallisker family, and which Granny Tallisker now has a duty to ensure lives on through the Bow children. A prophecy has told Granny that a Stranger will come and help to preserve and strengthen the gift. Granny tells Abigail that she needs to wait patiently for the moment when she will be called upon to help the Bows, and Abigail—begrudgingly, but dutifully—agrees to stop trying to escape and begins to enmesh herself in the lives of the Bows.
As Abigail shoulders the duty that has been thrust on her by Granny Tallisker, she grows more and more invested in the lives of the Bows and the Talliskers with each passing day. She spars with the feisty Beatie, helps Granny around the house, takes care of the sickly Gibbie, and falls in love with the strapping Judah. As she opens herself up to the beauty—and the duty—of familial love, Abigail comes to understand how she has been shirking her connection to her family back in her own world. Rather than behaving with empathy, forgiveness, and kindness towards her parents, she has judged them, berated them, and shamed them for things she cannot begin to fully understand. Abigail’s journey to the past, then, serves to open her eyes to the importance of maintaining family connections.
By the end of the novel, Abigail returns to her own time with a newfound wisdom, and informs her mother that she is okay with moving to Norway. Abigail, Kathy, and Weyland have their first normal, pleasant family dinner in years, and when Weyland attempts to apologize to Abigail and explain himself, she gracefully tells him that she understands everything. Abigail knows that her family deserves her understanding, and she truly does love them and wants to keep them together; just as she learned to shoulder duty with grace and determination in the past, she now does so in the present. Through Abigail’s profound change of heart, Park clearly suggests that family connection—through love, duty, and compassion—is the glue that holds generations together, and allows families to flourish, grow, and thrive.
Family, Duty, and Connection ThemeTracker
Family, Duty, and Connection Quotes in Playing Beatie Bow
The May holidays always made [Abigail] feel forlorn and restless. […] if her mother didn’t want her to help at the shop, she spent hours squashed into the corner of the brown armchair, which had once been a kindly bear and now was only a bear-shaped chair near a window which looked out on cranes and mast tops, on the deck of the Harbour Bridge and the pearly cusps of the Opera House rising through the gauzy murk like Aladdin’s palace. Mumping, her mother called it. But she was not doing that, or even thinking. Mostly she was just aware of something missing. When she was young she thought it was her father, for she had missed him miserably as well as hating him. […] But now she wasn’t a kid she knew that it wasn’t the absence of her father that caused the empty place inside. It was a part of her and she didn’t know what it was or why it was there.
“Oh, I know all you schoolgirls think you know every last word in the book about the relationships between a man and a woman; but love is a thing you have to experience before you know—” she hesitated, and then blurted out—“how powerful it can be.”
“Do you have a good or a bad feeling about him, poor bairn?”
Granny sighed. “I hae no clear feelings any more, Dovey. They're as mixed up as folk in fog.”
“But you've no doubt that this little one here is the Stranger?”
The two women spoke in whispers, but Abigail heard them, for the night was almost silent. There was no sound of traffic except a dray's wheels rolling like distant thunder over the cobbles at the docks. She could hear the waves breaking on the rocks of Dawes Point and Walsh Bay.
“Aye, when I first saw her I had a flash, clear as it was when I was a lass. Poor ill-favoured little yellow herring of a thing. But still, it came to me then, she was the Stranger that would save the Gift for the family.”
Abigail was so indignant at the description of herself that she almost opened her eyes.
“And then there was the gown, forebye. I swear, Granny, I almost fainted when I set eyes on it. The very pattern that we worked out between us!”
“And not a needle lifted to it yet,” said Granny.
The first thing was their kindness. How amazingly widespread it was. […] They had taken responsibility for her, nursed and clothed her. Someone had given up her bed, probably Beatie; no one had complained when she was snappish and rude about Dovey's best clothes, about the lack of sanitation; no one had condemned her unsympathetic attitude towards Gibbie.
“I'm not kind,” said Abigail with a sickish surprise. “Look how I went on with Mum when she said she wanted us to get together with Dad again. Look what I did to Dad when I was little, punched him on the nose and made it bleed. Maybe I’ve never been really kind in my life.” […] These Victorians lived in a dangerous world, where a whole family could be wiped out with typhoid fever or smallpox, where a soldier could get a hole in his head that you could put your fist in, where there were no pensions or free hospitals or penicillin or proper education for girls, or even poor boys, probably. Yet, in a way, it was a more human world than the one Abigail called her own.
“I wish I could stay awhile,” she thought, “and find out why all these things are. But I can't think about any of this till I get home. Getting home, that’s what I have to plan.”
“I've nothing to do with it!” cried Abigail. “I came here without wanting to and I want to go home. I've a life of my own, and I want to live it. My mother, I miss her, don't you understand?” she said chokily. She thought fiercely, “I won't cry, I won't.” She waited for a moment, and then said quietly, “I'm not your mysterious Stranger. I'm just someone who came into your life here in some way that's a riddle to me. But I have to go home, I don’t belong here. You must see that.”
“We canna let you go,” said Mrs. Tallisker. She had relinquished Abigail's hand and was sitting up against her pillows. Except for her sunken eyes she looked almost like her own dignified strong self again.
“But we canna let you go until you have done whatever it is the Stranger must do to preserve the Gift.” Dovey was distressed. “Oh, dear Abby, it may only be for a little while and then we will help you go to your own place. We do understand what you feel, that you long for your ain folk, but we canna let you go . . . you are our only hope, you see.”
“I just want to go home, you know,” whispered Abigail.
“You're as restless as a robin, child,” said Mrs Tallisker. 'But 'twill not be long now.”
There was a great difference in Mrs. Tallisker. She had, all at once, become older and smaller. Only a few weeks before she had towered, or so it seemed, over Abigail. Now Abigail was almost as tall. Her skin had crumpled more deeply, more extensively, like a slowly withering flower. She could not work as hard as before, but sat more often in the parlour with Gibbie, knitting thick grey socks for Judah.
“Aye,” she said with her sweet smile, as Abigail secretly stared at her, "tis a fearful effort to give out the Power when it has decided to leave. If I could do what I did for you, child, you can give me a little of your time, inna that fair enough?”
“Yes, of course,” said Abigail, but in her heart she was grudging.
“Stay awhile with us,” begged Dovey the next day, “for you're one of the family, Abby, true!”
“No,” said Abigail. “I have to go home; you know that.”
Her green dress looked strange to her; it had been so long since she had seen it. She saw it was not very well made; it was not worthy of the lace-like crochet. Abigail put on the dress. It fitted more tightly across the chest. My figure’s coming at last, she thought. Inside she was cold and without feeling, like a volcano covered with ice.
In a flash the study vanished and Abigail was on a ship. The waves ran along the side, leaping and hissing. They were as grey as marble. The ship rolled and creaked. There was a drumming from up in the air, where the wet sails flickered out showers of salty drops. But she felt no movement. Muffled in his pea-jacket, a woolen cap on his bright head, Judah sat on a roll of canvas, mending some ship's gear, or so she thought. He had not got older as Beatie had.
“Judah!” she cried joyfully, but he did not look up. The pulley and rope in his fingers changed to a knife and a little wooden figure he was whittling. Somehow she knew it was herself. With an exclamation she could not hear, he tossed it overboard, where it turned into Abby herself, clad in Dovey's blouse and serge skirt, rising stiffly up and down in the waves like a statue or a ship's figurehead.
“Oh, Judah,” sobbed Abigail, “how could you?”
It was amazing, terrifying, that all signs of the family's life could have so completely vanished, as if they had never been. It was as if time were a vast black hole which swallowed up all trace of human woes and joys and small hopes and tendernesses. And the same thing would happen to her and her parents.
The Bible was a mighty volume. The green plush had hardly any pile left at all; the brass edges were black and bent. They had not been polished for many years.
“Justine had it at the top of the linen cupboard. It belonged to some old great-great aunt or such. She used to be headmistress at Fort Street School, you know the old building up near the Observatory that the National Trust has now?”
“So she made it, the little stirrer!” crowed Abigail. She beamed at Robert, who gaped at her.
'She wasn't any little stirrer; she was a perfect old tartar. Mother remembered her quite well; she was in an old ladies' home or something. Mother was petrified with terror of her, she said.”
“Old Miss Bow!” Abigail laughed marvelling. “Who would have guessed it? I guess that's how that kids’ game sprang up . . . terror lest Miss Beatie Bow would rise from the grave and give them all what for.”
“Natalie has something to do with this, hasn't she,” he pondered. “Because, after all, she's a Bow, and perhaps she has the Gift. And the crochet, because it came from the fingers of that Great-great-great-grandmother Alice from the Orkneys, was just enough to tip you over into the last century. She was right, you know: you were the Stranger of the Prophecy.”
“You would have liked Granny Tallisker,” said Abigail. She sighed. “You won't care for mine, she's even worse than she used to be.”
She was silent, thinking of that old woman, Alice Tallisker, her infinite goodness and strength, and how she had said that the link between Abigail and the Talliskers and Bows was no stronger than the link between that family and Abigail. The theory she had had when wandering The Rocks four years before - that time was a great black vortex down which everything disappeared - no longer made sense to her. She saw now that it was a great river, always moving, always changing, but with the same water flowing between its banks from source to sea.