Patricia Wrightson is one of the most underrated authors of children and young adult fantasy — at least in North America. She receives the recognition she deserves in her native Australia but the eighty-something author is virtually unknown here in the United States and Canada, and that’s a shame. Her books, which now can only be found as treasured discoveries in used bookstores, feature some of the best storytelling I’ve ever encountered, and the author has had an significant impact on my development as a writer.
Years ago, when my mother was reading me to sleep, she picked Patricia Wrightson’s An Older Kind of Magic, a story set in Sydney featuring the family of a caretaker living on the rooftop of the government office building the caretaker is responsible for. The children have full access to the offices that are desrted overnight and on the weekends, but there’s more. A comet is making a close pass to Earth and there is literally magic in the air. Creatures from the Dreamtime know the comet is coming and are preparing for that special night when they celebrate.
The images Wrightson brings forward, of children playing in deserted offices, a home on a rooftop in the middle of the city, and a city disgorging its downtown workers and becoming a different, semi-deserted world where other creatures come out to play, stayed in my head for years. And when I read An Older Kind of Magic to Erin for bedtime, she made a remarkable observation: our writing styles were remarkably similar. Is it possible that a story that my mother read to me when I was eight could have such an impact on the words that I put to paper twenty-five years later?
Since rereading An Older Kind of Magic, I’ve become aware of Wrightson’s considerable body of work. She wrote pretty much constantly from 1955 into the nineties and a number of her books have won awards. All of her stories mesh the legends of the Australian aboriginies with European storytelling conventions. The result is a set of fairy tales that are different from the typical fantasy stories one reads.
Most fantasy is influenced by Celtic legend, and Celtic fantasy tales tend to be displacement tales, reflecting the migration of the Celts and their conflict with the Bronze Age people (the Tuatha de Dannan) they replaced. Australian aboriginal legends, if anything, are older and sadder. The aboriginies have been in Australia for at least 40,000 years, and they didn’t displace anybody. Their tales are not conflict tales or contact tales, but tales about humanity’s balance with the forces of nature. The creatures that populate Wrightson’s tales are often representation of these forces, from the volcanic rock-creature Narguns, to the clownish swamp-creature Potkooroks, to creatures of the wind and of caves.
It may raise eyebrows to see Wrightson write about these aboriginal tales, given that she is of European descent, but many of her stories deal with the settler intrusion on this aboriginal world. For example, Nargun and the Stars features a settler family having to turn to a combination of modern technology and old knowledge to deal with the fact that a dangerous Nargun has arrived on their property. The Song of Wirrun trilogy features a young aboriginal man coming into his own as the protector of the old ways, but the uneasy truce between “The People” (the aboriginals), “the Happy Folk” (the white urbanites blissfully unaware of the power of the land) and “the Inlanders” (white farmers who have some idea of the power of the land) informs much of the book.
My latest Wrightson find was a hardcover novella entitled Balyet, published in 1989. This story, aimed at children twelve and up, has all of Wrightson’s hallmarks: an aboriginal tale adapted in novel form, set in modern day Australia with a handful of white characters complicating the plotline. The story features Mrs. Willet, an old “Clever Woman”, who has been charged by her people to keep the sacred places. While on her regular visits into the Outback, she is frustrated to find that Jo, a young girl of fourteen, the daughter of a neighbour, has stowed away in her car. Mrs. Willet has babysat her so many times, Jo refers to her as “Granny”.
Jo is an exuberant teenager, and wants to tag along so she can visit Tommy, a young man she has a crush on, and his brother Lance, who drives a motorbike. Granny Willet is reluctant to take Jo with her, as Jo’s mother is away on business, but she can’t delay her trip and accept’s Jo’s company. And as Mrs. Willet tends to the sacred places, and Jo chats up her friends, they are watched by Balyet, a ghostly remnant of a young woman who loved two brothers, caused them to fight, caused much commotion in her tribe, and so was banished to the hills where even death refused her.
Balyet exists as an echo, as Jo discovers when she, Tommy and Lance all shout at the hills, and the echo replies only in Jo’s voice. In Jo, Balyet senses kinship, and Jo feels considerable sympathy for Balyet, rejected by her people centuries ago in a punishment that Jo sees as cruel. However, Balyet is mad with age and loneliness, and so is very dangerous. She is known for enticing young children into the rocks and freezing them with her embrace. She can play with people’s minds, and soon has Jo under her spell. Granny Willet, as smart as she is, is hard pressed to save her.
Wrightson masterfully weaves old and new together in Balyet. The aboriginal elements use the legends in their purest forms, and they interweave so well with elements of the modern world, including especially Jo’s rebellious adolescent nature. The two elements could not be more different, and they clash in ways that are fresh and interesting. Granny Willet may be a Clever Woman, but she doesn’t know how to handle a rebellious young teenager. And Granny Willet comes to admit that by modern-day standards, Jo is right, the punishment metted out to Balyet is cruel and doesn’t match the crime. Is it possible to save both Jo and Balyet?
Wrightson has a tight writing style that makes Balyet go down smoothly, and yet the story is downright frightening in places. The characterization is also very good. Granny Willet is fascinating as a wise woman who finds herself out of her depth, first with Jo’s rebellious streak, and then with the complications that arise with Balyet, but it is Balyet that steals the show. Thousands of years old, desperately lonely and longing for an end to her existence, it’s impossible not to feel for her, even as she leads Jo to certain death.
Wrightson’s work gives you a window on a different kind of fantasy. It is a rich vein seldom mined by other fantasy authors, and so she is an excellent retreat when you’re getting tired of the same-old, same-old. Balyet represents her best work to date, but if you should find Wrightson’s name on any book discovered in a used bookstore, my recommendation is to buy it.