A Fence around the Cuckoo
Ruth Park’s success has come as a surprise to many New Zealanders, and raises questions about how we regard our expatriate writers, or rather how we define them. She counts as an Australian, to be even more submerged by a post-1930s New Zealand tradition that ignores Australian prose literature. She’s lucky to get even a one-and-a-half line dismissal (as ‘melodramatic’) in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature.
Cuckoo comes home to roost in time for Women’s Suffrage Year, perhaps with a hope for recognition as one who has a gift of using vernacular which is as familiar (and as incisive) in women’s mouths as in men’s. She shares with two other somewhat downsized expatriates, Davin and Virtue (whose Antipodean English at least receives some ignorant comment from local poons), a good ear and memory for the speech of their families, elders, and contemporaries. There’s a more obvious, though coincidental, comparison with Robin Hyde – the struggle with male-dominated career journalism, an attraction to Starkie’s talismanic face from a brutal history (Park’s pet goat ate his sock in a relief-camp tent), the keen sense of social justice, combined with a passionate way of expressing it in fiction. Park, however, was by far the luckier in her family and friends, in her longer life (her career was beginning as Hyde’s ended), and in a body not plagued by physical disability.
The autobiography explores both the advantages of an extended family and the need to escape from it if one is to put away childish and shadowy things. For Park (as for many modern Maori young), Australia was possibly more of a haven from family than a promised land. She grew up (a clarky big lump according to her grandmother) in the boom and bust of the twenties and thirties, had her girlhood in the King Country (Te Kuiti), and her adolescence in various places and among various parts of a widespread, often rambunctious, but mainly supportive family. She certainly needed a cool eye to distinguish real from legendary family features and beliefs. She is seen growing into an independent and persevering person, diligent (for example) in seeking out the truth about and finally meeting before his death a grandfather maligned by family legend; and in a quite different but equally positive way, in coming to terms with a callous rejection note from Elsie K Morton, a children’s page editorial mentor turned demon. Her strong sense of social justice goes hand in hand with an equally strong belief in the need for reconciliation. In the end she has no grudges to settle, nothing to expiate. Her writing, following her mind and imagination, has a certain spaciousness, and a kindly and forgiving tone, illuminated by humour and a sense of the ridiculous. The lasting impression is of hope, of making the best of the talents dealt out, of using any gifts (in her case storytelling) in the wider service of others, children very much included.
Storytelling has obviously been of huge importance in Park’s life. The autobiography reveals a wealth of incident and language to be enjoyed for itself and remembered for future use. It’s constructed in a way she favours in her novels: a series of stories woven around central characters. Her Swords and Crowns and Rings (1977), constructed in this way and with an Australian setting, illustrates her use of source material better than her earlier The Witch’s Thorn, set in the King Country of the 1920s. The period of Swords and Crowns and Rings (1924-33) co-extends with that of much of the autobiography. Jacky, its dwarf hero, brings to mind not only the Aboriginal (sit up like Jacky), but the various Jacks of the autobiography including Flash Jack, the underdog supreme. Her own dotie kitten, a cuff across the ear that felt like a blow from a handful of candles are straight out of Park’s grandmother’s repertoire. (Thin as a Protestant herring is one that caught my fancy.) The autobiography, then, is something of a window on Park’s writings showing her early New Zealand experience to be a pervasive and formative element. One looks forward to future volumes.
Harry Orsman is a Wellington lexicographer and editor.