My apologies for going silent on you for almost 30 hours. Such are the perils of signing up with a non-profit webhost run by dedicated volunteers. Still, I was in good company; PhotoJunkie and the Doctor Who Information Network were both down with me. And you know what they say about misery and company.
Joan Aiken, 1925-2004
Cameron passes on the sad news that Ms. Joan Aiken, respected writer and daughter of poet Conrad Aiken, passed away on January 4. She was 79. In her long and illustrious life, she wrote many novels, but she will be best known to me for her Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence, featuring her plucky heroine, Dido Twite.
Dido Twite was a sensible and courageous heroine having adventures in a mixed up world that had to be read to be believed. It's set in the mid 19th century, and the Stuarts are still on the throne of England. More than a few of Dido's adventures had her fighting off plots by the "dastardly Hannoverians" to retake the throne. One story, The Stolen Lake, is set in South America (or "Roman America", as it is known in this universe) featuring the survivors of King Arthur's army, whose ancestors nabbed the boats of the invading Saxons and took off across the Atlantic to build a new kingdom deep in the Amazon rainforest. And all of these wild geopolitics are incidental; they are simply the world that plucky Dido Twite finds herself in.
Sadly, we shall never know if Dido became queen of England, married to King Simon the First.
The Nargun and the Stars
If I had to make a list of authors who have most influenced me, one of the higher ones on my list would have to be Patricia Wrightson. I only have two books by this respected Australian children's author in my collection, but An Older Kind of Magic (published in 1972) was read to me at an impressionable age and, rereading that book, Erin tells me that she sees a lot of my style in Patricia Wrightson's writing. An Older Kind of Magic also paints lovely pictures of rush hour in Sydney, and mixes the urban landscape with fantasy elements in a way that stays with me to this day. Imagine the family of a janitor/watchman, living on top of a government building; imagine children playing in darkened offices and corridors abandoned for the night. Ms. Wrightson creates an atmosphere to die for.
Unfortunately, Ms. Wrightson is not well known in North America. I was very fortunate to come upon her book, The Nargun and the Stars (published in 1973), in a used bookstore in Halifax. In this book, orphaned Simon Brent is sent to live with an "aunt" and "uncle" (actually, second cousins to his mother) in a ranch called Wongadilla, at the foot of a mountain. Exploring the place, Simon discovers a swamp and a forest, and ancient, playful creatures that lived before the aboriginies came. But he also discovers the Nargun, an ancient, dangerous creature of stone, whose slow progress across the mountain has it on a collision course with the ranch.
One of the strengths of Nargun and the Stars is that it is a typical fairy story of a modern boy running into a world of elves and sprites, but Ms. Wrightson is able to make this genre new and fresh by dipping into Australian legends for her magical creatures. The Potkoorok and the Turongs are at once fresh and new, and old and familiar. North American readers are treated to a window onto a realm of myth and legend they rarely see, but can easy understand and appreciate.
The Nargun and the Stars is a better book than An Older Kind of Magic, longer, more ambitious, and with some really frightening scenes to go with the characters and the images of the latter book. Ms. Wrightson has received recognition in her native Australia, but I still hope that she gets more attention amongst North American readers. Maybe it's the advantage of her locale and the cultural history she draws upon, but her books are a breath of fresh air; something different standing out in a wide field of children's fiction.
Patricia Wrightson Links
- Biography pages at Penguin Australia including an interview.
- Her entry in Australian Literature Gateway.
Joan Aiken Links