Playing Beatie Bow is populated largely by a cast of children and young adults. From the headstrong but cynical teen protagonist Abigail Kirk (who feels “a hundred years older and wiser” than her classmates even before her education and transformative journey to the past takes place) to her fiery foil Beatie Bow (who may or may not be in possession of a mysterious psychic Gift), Park’s young characters are deeply complicated, perceptive, and often wise beyond their years, and yet many are held back in ways small and large by the constraints of the moment in which they live. By presenting young characters that complicate restrictive notions of what children can know—and demonstrating the suffocating and prohibitive nature of prejudices against children—Park suggests that the wisdom of children is expansive, subversive, and often uncanny, and should never be underestimated or discounted. Despite their youth and occasional naivete, the children within the pages of Beatie Bow—and indeed, Park argues, the children of the world—have the potential to save their families, to turn the tides of history, and to outsmart, outwit, and outmaneuver those who would undervalue them.
Abigail Kirk is presented as an impetuous, rather spoiled, and self-pitying young girl at the start of the novel. Despite her health, her loving mother, her luxe apartment in a high-rise building designed by her architect father, and her relatively stable, trauma-free existence, Abigail is obsessed with all the things in her life that have gone wrong, and blind to the privilege and blessings that have come her way. Abigail is met with a rude awakening when she is flung backwards in time to 1873 and forced to adapt to a new and much more difficult era of history. Abigail is in possession of a very specific wisdom—knowledge of the future—but is, by the same turn, naïve to the ways of the world she has found herself in, and she stumbles and struggles often as she makes her way through it. Thus, Abigail is rendered both powerful and powerless, wise and naïve. Park imbues her novels’ protagonist with a very specific kind of power, but infringes upon her agency by thrusting her into a set of circumstances in which her primary skill—her knowledge of the future—is underestimated and undervalued. Park also doubles down on this theme in the other members of the Bow family, and repeatedly shows how children’s agency and worth is frequently undervalued, just as with Abigail herself.
Beatie Bow is another character whose wisdom and power are constrained and even quashed by the constraints not only of others’ perceptions of her, but by the era in which she lives. When Abigail first encounters Beatie, she has already been hearing the girl’s name for weeks. “Beatie Bow” is the name of a game favored by neighborhood children in Abigail’s present—it is a dark playground game in which a circle of children chant rhymes until someone dressed as the ghost of Beatie Bow is set loose, and whomever that child tags becomes the “new” Beatie. In this way, Beatie seems to hold a sacred wisdom by virtue of her being the star of such a cryptic game, and so in Abigail’s eyes, she holds a kind of power already. Of course, there is also the fact that Beatie is the one who literally pulls Abigail through time—Park presents Beatie right off the bat as a very powerful little girl, indeed. As Abigail spends more time with Beatie, she sees the ways in which Beatie’s wisdom and power are marginalized by the constraints both of her family’s secretive nature and the prejudiced, sexist world of Victorian-era New South Wales. Beatie has a strong, fiery personality, and often succeeds if not in winning arguments against her siblings and other family members, at least frustrating everyone to the point that they give in to her whims. Beatie is a clever girl, and longs for a real education in languages, numbers, and literature—but education is forbidden to girls of Beatie’s time. As wise as Beatie is, she is nonetheless limited by the unfair constraints of her environment, and the ways that others underestimate her abilities and capacity for brilliance. It is eventually revealed that in the future, Beatie becomes a scholar, and a renowned, fearsome headmistress at a very good Sydney school—the neighborhood children know her name more than a hundred years later because of the same virtues that made her powerful as a child: her fierceness, her smarts, and her dogged pursuit of validation in the face of those who would underestimate or discredit her.
Gibbie, the sickly youngest Bow child, is portrayed at first as weak and frail, constantly on the verge of dying from an unnamed disease. As the novel progresses, though, and Abigail is more and more often charged with looking after Gibbie, she sees the truth: he is either a hypochondriac or a phony, a melancholy child in mourning for his deceased mother who has seen, through example, that sickness and death are the surest ways to receive attention and even reverence. Gibbie, then, has a power that contrasts his apparent weakness—he knows how to manipulate those around him to bend to his will, wait on his every need, and heed his every call. Moreover, Gibbie will be revealed to contain a power that no one can yet see, despite the “constraints” of his sickness. The prophecy Granny has seen tells her that one Bow child will be barren, and one will die. Granny—and the rest of the family—assume Gibbie will be the one to die, but at the end of the novel, it is revealed that Gibbie lived a long, healthy life, and succeeded in passing on not just the family name but the family Gift as well. In this way, Gibbie is shown to have been a “powerful” child all along, despite the constraints he created for himself, and the ways his self-defeating behavior caused everyone around him to see him as a weak link, thus greatly underestimating the role he would come to play in the family’s legacy.
Children are often powerful and wise in Playing Beatie Bow. The world of young adult literature is often meant to bolster young readers’ beliefs in themselves and what they can do, and in Playing Beatie Bow, Park constructs a narrative in which the young carry the greatest sense of purpose and often save the day. In this way, Park argues against the underestimation of children, and uses her novel to show the subversive and surprising ways in which children are often much wiser or much more powerful than they appear at first glance.
The Wisdom and Power of Children ThemeTracker
The Wisdom and Power of Children 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.
Her eyes turned instinctively to the corner of the wall where it met the street. There lurked Natalie's little furry girl, looking cold and forlorn.
“She looks the way I feel,” thought Abigail. But how did she feel? Not quite lost but almost. Baffled. A sense of too many strange ideas crowding around her, a feeling of helplessness and difficulty with which she could not come to terms. She thought, “Maybe they're right. Maybe there is such a thing as being too young and inexperienced to know your own mind.”
“What’s your name?”
Abigail scowled. “Quit having me on, whoever you are. That’s the name of a kids’ game.”
“I ken that well enough. But it’s my name. Beatrice May Bow, and I’m eleven years of age, though small for it, I know, because of the fever.” Suddenly she grabbed Abigail’s arm. “Dunna tell, I’m asking you. Dunna tell Granny where you come from, or I’m for it. She’ll say I’ve the Gift and I havena, and don’t want it, God knows, because I’m afeared of what it does.”
“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.
“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.”
In a way she felt as she had felt when her father went away and left her. Fright, anger and helplessness, the sense of being nobody who could make things happen. But then she had been only ten. Four years of schooling her face to be expressionless, her thoughts to be her private property, had not gone to waste.
After her first despair, she thought, “I won’t let them beat me. If that dress is hidden around the house I’lI find it. Or I'll bribe Beatie, or coax Judah, into telling me where it is.”
She had learnt a lot about herself in this new rough world. Her own thoughts and conclusions of just a month before filled her with embarrassed astonishment when she reviewed them.
“What a dummo I was! I knew as much about real life as poor little Natty.”
“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.
“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.”