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RUTH PARK


Ruth Park Born in Auckland, New Zealand, probably in 1923 [she has always refused to confirm the actual date, and the published information varies from 1917 to 1924] Ruth Park has had a lengthy career as a professional writer (late 1930s to the late 1990s), and writes for children, young adults and adults - each with considerable success.

Her childhood was deeply affected by the Great Depression which saw her family move from place to place with her father's employment. The poor working conditions and low wages faced by her parents had an abiding influence on their only child; she developed a rich imagination and spent long periods entertaining herself. Then, when her father became ill and the family moved in with relatives, Ruth had her first experiences of inner-city working-class life.

This childhood insecurity, and the role of aunts, became recurring themes in Ruth Park's subsequent novels.

As a teenager, Ruth wrote contributions to the children's pages on the New Zealand newspapers and, after completing her schooling, commenced work as a proof-reader with the 'Auckland Star'. She continued to write for other papers under a pseudonym, and even had her stories in overseas publications.

In 1940 Ruth traveled briefly to Sydney, Australia to meet D'Arcy Niland, a young local writer with whom she had been corresponding. She returned to Australia in 1942 and the couple married. They lived in inner-city suburbs, and by war's end had two children.

Ruth submitted a manuscript, Harp in the South, to a Sydney newspaper competition held in 1946 and won the 2,000 first prize. The story was serialized the following year, and published as a book in Sydney, London and Boston in 1948 - an outstanding achievement.

This novel was followed in 1949 by its sequel, Poor Man's Orange. The books tell of several generations of an Irish-Catholic family living in a cramped, inner-city tenement at 12 Plymouth Street, Surry Hills, a suburb of Sydney. This rough neighbourhood forms the backdrop for the family's unrelenting poverty, with failed relationships, inter-racial affairs, teenage factory workers, unwanted pregnancies, habitual drunkenness and disintegration. Park's understanding for the poor and oppressed shines through.

Among the books to follow was a large non-fiction work, The Golden Boomerang: Australians, the Oldest and the Newest (1955). This was written to inform European audiences about Australia in advance of Melbourne's 1956 Olympic Games. It was translated into seven languages.

Ruth Park and D'Arcy Niland's careers as writers were by this time firmly established. They regularly wrote scripts for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, with Ruth specializing in scripts for children's programmes. Niland's first major success came with the publication of The Shiralee (1955), and the couple wrote a lighthearted book together, The Drums Go Bang! (1956) about the struggles of raising a family while trying to establish careers as writers.

The Hole in the Hill, published in 1961, began a series of Ruth Park's novels for young adult readers. As in her novels for adults, many of them featured a teenage heroine with difficulties at home and an adventurous spirit. These books, too, were very popular with readers.

Starting in 1962, with its real origins in the earlier ABC children's radio shows, came the first of Ruth's thirteen books for younger children - The Muddle-Headed Wombat series - which were published over a period of twenty years. The wombat, along with its other indigenous animal friends, became involved in a zany series of adventures, and soon won a place in the heart of parents, children, teachers and librarians - becoming one of a very few 'dinkum Aussie' animals to secure a firm place in Australian children's literature.

Following the death of her husband in 1967, Ruth survived the upheaval in her personal life by continuing her writing for children, both on radio and in books. She moved to Norfolk Island in 1973, turning back to young adult readers with the successful Callie's Castle, illustrated by her daughter Kilmeny Niland, in 1974.

Despite her long break from writing adult fiction, in 1977 her Swords and Crowns and Rings was both a commercial and critical success. It also won the Miles Franklin Award for Ruth Park in the following year. Her next book, a prequel to 'The Harp in the South' and 'Poor Man's Orange', was less successful.

In recognition for her contribution to Australian literature - she had written almost sixty books during her forty-year creative lifetime - Ruth Park was made a Member of the Order of Australia.

The first of Ruth Park's two volumes of autobiography, A Fence Around the Cuckoo, was released in 1992. Fishing in the Styx, the second volume, was published during the following year. Both won several writing awards.

© BARRY JOHN WATTS 2004

 
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