Patricia Wrightson (1921-2010)

Patricia Wrightson

Two older women have had, I think, a significant influence on my own writing. Madeleine L’Engle, the American author of A Wrinkle in Time and numerous other books for children and adults, is well known to Canadian and American readers. The other author, Patricia Wrightson, might be less well known, but she’s no less important to me.

No surprise, perhaps, because she’s Australian. And while she received critical acclaim and attention in her home country, including television adaptations of her work, her influence has tended to stay there. Every last book of hers that I’ve purchased, I’ve purchased used. Her books were rooted in the culture and mythology of her home country, and may have had little resonance elsewhere. But I can’t help but notice that I did find many of her books here. I was able to buy them in local used bookstores. She got her words around the world, and I listened.

Back when I was eight, my mother read me Wrightson’s novel, An Older Kind of Magic. It told the story of a group of young children banding together to save an urban park in downtown Sydney. Meanwhile, a comet is making a pass near Earth, and its presence is awakening some of the older creatures of the land — beings which predate European settlement. These are creatures of magic, wild and in some ways dangerous, but more a part of the land than the people who now reside. For the children, they may have found a new and powerful ally in their drive to save their park.

My mother read to me to bed until I was almost into my teenage years — it’s a tradition I hope to continue with my children for at least as long. I remember this book strongly — as strongly as my mother’s reads of the Narnia series, or even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. What resonated was the family two of the children belonged to. Their father was a caretaker who helped supervise the cleaners in one of the government buildings in downtown Sydney, and as a result of his position, he was given his own house on the roof of that government building, where he raised his family. His children would come home from school, entering these buildings as most people were bustling out for the night. They would be given the run of the nearly empty corridors, playing amongst the floor cleaners and nipping past the locked offices. It was a world that appealed to me. Wrightson’s words and images made it appealing. I found myself thinking about that book as I went through life — as I started writing.

And, a quarter century later, when I rediscovered the book and set about reading it to Erin before we went to sleep, she said something very interesting: Wrightson’s writing style was not that far off from my own. Maybe she’s influenced me more than I thought.

Since then, I’ve been on a quest to pick up and read her other works, and I’ve enjoyed them immensely. Wrightson takes what some might think of as a controversial approach to her work. As an Australian of European descent, she’s had no qualms about incorporating the legends of the Australian aborigines into her works. Indeed, many of her stories deal with the European settlers bumping up against the older magic of the place, sometimes with awkward results. I know that such cultural appropriation is frowned upon, but maybe it’s frowned upon more here than over there.

Arguably her best known work is the Wirrun sequence, where a young Australian aborigine is called upon by the land to take up the role of its protector, managing the various magical territories as they shift from being displaced by European settlement, somehow managing to get the old conflicts resolved along with the new. Similarly, in The Nargun and the Stars — my favourite book of hers — a boy and his settler uncle confront an ancient magical creature that has come to their land. To deal with the danger, the boy must contact the other ancient creatures of the place, and obtain their help. Many more examples exist of the old and the new living in a tense and fragile coexistence, and her writing emulated that. Her publisher, Mark Macleod, is quoted as saying “สัตว์ใต้ท้องทะเลShe was trying to create a kind of pan-Australia — a whole new Australian mythology which was part non-indigenous and part indigenous.”.

I know she was criticized for it, but I don’t think that stopped her writing, and nor did it diminish the appreciation of her work. Her works remain in print in Australia. They can be found here in North America. And a literary award has been named in her honour.

Wrightson passed away on March 15 of natural causes; she was eighty-eight. A few years before that, I wrote a letter to Ms Wrightson, care of her publisher, expressing my gratitude for her work and how it inspired me. I never heard back from her, but I am pleased that I managed to write to her before she passed away.

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