At the beginning of Playing Beatie Bow, fourteen-year-old Abigail Kirk has spent years mourning the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. Abigail’s devastation and feelings of abandonment have so deeply permeated her mind and heart that she closes herself off from friendship and love, and actively looks down on her “love-mad” classmates. It is not only romantic love that Abigail rejects, however—through her cynicism regarding paternal and maternal love, she also finds her relationship with her father marred by “an eradicable memory of rejection of love,” and pities her mother, who is still in love with her father and who longs to accept his recent proposal to rekindle their marriage. Yet as the novel unfolds and Abigail is flung back in time to 1873, she finds herself, against all odds, caught up in the tides of love—romantic, platonic, filial, sororal—and at last understands what a force of nature love can be. Through Abigail’s journey towards accepting the transformative power of love, Park argues that love can change the course of a life—and the course of history itself.
In the beginning of the novel, Abigail’s parents are separated and have been for many years. Abigail nurses a quiet hatred of her father Weyland, who abandoned her and her mother Kathy, and this simmering anger she has harbored for so long has numbed her to the phenomenon of love. Abigail maintains a cool, reserved, and quiet demeanor, never letting anyone see her real feelings or emotions. She describes a longing to share herself with someone, but doesn’t even know how to begin; she also describes having an “empty place” inside of her, but similarly does not know where it came from or how to fix it. Abigail is clearly ready for some kind of love—to express it or to receive it—but has so stunted herself that she does not know how. Instead of trying, she continues to hold a holier-than-thou view; she sees herself as older and wiser than the other girls her age who fall in love left and right, and when her mother announces that Abigail’s father has asked the both of them to move to Norway, to live as a family once again, Abigail excoriates her mother for allowing herself to be taken advantage of again. Abigail does not believe that love can be a nurturing force—only a silly, superfluous, or even destructive one. Abigail’s mother attempts to show Abigail how she is rejecting love because she has not felt it: “Love is a thing you have to experience before you know […] how powerful it can be,” Kathy tells Abigail in the heat of an argument, but her words are no use—Abigail sees love not only as a waste of time, but as an actively hazardous pursuit. By showing Abigail’s cynicism and superiority, Park also demonstrates her naivete.
After a fight with her mother, Abigail is whisked away to the past when she follows Beatie Bow home from the playground and through an invisible split in time, and everything about Abigail’s world transforms. At first, when she is taken in by the Bows and the Talliskers, Abigail is indignant at her bad luck and reluctant to trust the family that has shown her love by bringing her into their fold. After getting to know the family better, Abigail begins to enjoy their company, but still longs to return to her old life. When an escape attempt goes wrong, and Abigail is captured by the proprietors of a brothel, the Bows—specifically, Granny and Judah—rally to save her, and from that moment on Abigail feels both profoundly indebted to and affectionate towards the people who have taken her in and cared for her all this time.
As Abigail’s attitude toward platonic love transforms, and she starts to let other people in little by little, she also finds herself pulled toward feelings of romantic love. After Judah saves Abigail when she is captured and dragged off to the whorehouse, Abigail begins to realize that she has feelings for Judah. As she reckons with the fact that she has at last been “pierced” by love, she is amazed to discover that her mother was right all along: she had to experience love before she could understand its true power. As her feelings grow, Abigail finds herself happily daydreaming constantly, but also wishing for harm or ill fortune to come to those who would threaten her happiness with Judah. When she finds out that Dovey and Judah have been promised to one another since childhood, she harbors bad feelings towards Dovey, and when she learns that the prophecy Granny Tallisker has seen foretells the death of one of the Bow children, she prays it is either Beatie or Gibbie, and not her beloved Judah. Abigail sees how love has the power to transform one’s thoughts and feelings, and understands at last the “love-mad” behaviors of those she had once looked down upon.
After saving the Bows and Talliskers from a raging fire at their shop, Abigail realizes that Judah truly loves Dovey and not her when he runs straight to Dovey in the aftermath of the blaze. Her duty to the Bows fulfilled, and her heart effectively broken, Abigail leaves the Bows and the Talliskers behind and returns to the present. As Abigail reenters the world she left behind, she finds herself transformed by all the love she encountered in the past, despite the hardship and heartbreak she also encountered there. Abigail longs not only for Judah, but for all the other Bows as well—she feels the “empty place” inside of her, which had filled for a time, begin to come back, more desolate than ever. She has been transformed emotionally, and allowed herself to become vulnerable to the happiness and sadness that love can bring. Moreover, Abigail’s mother Kathy observes a change in her daughter that she cannot quite put her finger on—it is the transformation engendered by Abigail’s having surrendered herself to the experience of love.
Through the use of a jump forward in time in the novel’s last chapter, Park demonstrates how Abigail has put the lessons she learned in the past in practice. When Abigail and her parents return to their apartment in Sydney after four years abroad, her next-door neighbor Justine Crown teases Abigail about all the love affairs she must have had with beautiful Norwegian men while living away, and Abigail admits to having had several more experiences with love. At the very end of the novel, Abigail is then surprised to meet Justine’s brother Robert—he looks exactly like Judah, and through her conversations with him Abigail finds that he is a Bow, descended from Gibbie. Robert and Abigail feel strangely familiar with each other immediately, and have an open, frank, and vulnerable relationship from the very start. It is no doubt the transformative experience of love Abigail encountered in 1873 that has allowed her to flourish into an emotionally vulnerable and outwardly loving young woman four years later.
The story of Beatie Bow is one of family, of legacy, and of the steady onward march of time and history—but it is also one of love, and the power it has to transform lives and transfigure the world. Because Abigail was at last able to allow herself to give and receive love freely without the cynicism and guardedness she exhibited in the “real” world, she was able to encounter a new part of herself, and complete her duties not only to the Bows, but to her own family, and also to herself.
The Transformative Power of Love ThemeTracker
The Transformative Power of Love Quotes in Playing Beatie Bow
Outside, [Abigail] was composed, independent, not very much liked. The girls at school said she was a weirdie, and there was no doubt she was an outsider. She looked like a stick in jeans and a tank top; so she would not wear them. If everyone else was wearing her hair over her face, Abigail scraped hers back. She didn’t have a boy friend, and when asked why she either looked enigmatic as though she knew twenty times more about boys than anyone else, or said she’d never met one who was half-way as interesting as her maths textbook. The girls said she was unreal, and she shrugged coolly. The really unreal thing was that she didn’t care in the least what they thought of her. She felt a hundred years older and wiser than this love-mad rabble in her class.
[Abigail’s] chief concern was that no one, not even her mother, should know what she was like inside. Because maybe to adults the turmoil of uncertainties, extravagant glooms, and sudden blisses, might present some kind of pattern or map, so that they could say, ‘Ah, so that’s the real Abigail, is it?’ The thought of such trespass made her stomach turn over. So she cultivated an expressionless face, a long piercing glance under her eyelashes that Grandmother called slippery. She carefully laid false trails until she herself sometimes could not find the way into her secret heart. Yet the older she grew the more she longed for someone to laugh at the false trails with, to share the secrets. What secrets? She didn’t yet know what they were herself.
“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.”
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 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.
For an instant she remembered her mother's dark dewdrop eyes, as she said, “You don't know how powerful love can be,” and she thought how strange it was that love had made her both callous and tender. She did not care if this child died. Though she had never liked him, she had not wanted to deprive him of his life. But now, if his death meant that Judah lived, then she did not care a jot if he died. At the same time she did what would have made her skin creep a day or so before: she put her arms around his shivering, bony little body and held him comfortingly.
“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.
Abigail saw ahead of her the lamp that lit the steep stairs to the alley which ran down to the playground. Beatie kicked angrily at the kerbstone. Her face was undecided, back to its crabbed urchin look.
“I know you hate me because I fell in love with your brother. Well, he doesn't love me, never did and never will. And I did save Dovey for him.”
“’Twas no more than what you were sent for,” said Beatie churlishly.
Abigail lost her temper. “Oh, you know everything, don't you? Let me tell you, you sulky little pig, you know nothing about love, that's one thing. You have to experience it to know how powerful it is.”
Here she stopped, dumbstruck, remembering who had said the same words to her.
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?”
“Now then, start from the very beginning and tell me about everything. Did you go to Oslo University? Did you have any romances with glamorous Norwegians?”
“Oh, three or four.” Abigail smiled. “They're irresistible people. Not serious though.”
“You'll die being back in this old mundane place,” said Justine.
“No, not at all. Oh, it seems a bit hot and bright after those northern countries, but I'm going to finish my degree at Sydney University. I'll soon get used to it, and everything that happened in the last four years will seem like a fairy-tale.”
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.”
“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.