Playing Beatie Bow, by Ruth Park (1980). By happy chance, I am writing about this Australian classic on Australia Day, it being already the 26th there (I'm pretty sure... time is a slippery thing).
"It's Beatie Bow," shrieked Mudda in a voice of horror, "risen from the dead!" (page 10). And all the children ran screaming away from the girl covered in a white cloth.
It was just a playground game, scary, but fun. But what the children didn't know was that Beatie Bow was a real person, a 19th-century Australian girl whose family had immigrated from the Orkney Islands, bringing with them their family Gift of preternatural powers.
Even teenaged Abigail, watching the children play, finds the game strangely compelling. But when she meets the real Beatie, pulled forward in time by the sound of her name, and follows her back into the 19th-century, it's no longer any fun at all. Beatie's family takes her in, and treats her well, but still she is frightened--unsure what has happened to her, and even more terrified by the prospect that she will never go home again. The last time she had seen her mother, they were in the middle of horrible conflict--Abigail's father, who left when she was ten, wants them to try to be family again, a prospect that makes her furious (and she's a prickly, stubborn sort of person to begin with). It's not till she faces the prospect of never seeing her parents again that she realizes just how much their happiness means to her.
Abigail's journey into the past isn't random--she been called back to help Beatie's family pass on their Gift to the next generation...and until she does that, the way home is closed to her. But no one can tell her what she must do. And so the days in the past move along, bringing strange clothes and customs, and a growing closeness to Judah, a boy only a few years older then herself. But Judah is intended for another girl--kind, gentle Dovey. And sharp-tongued Beatie won't let Abigail forget it....
Park creates an incredibly detailed and evocative picture of the 19th-century life of a respectable but poor working family, and the book's worth reading for that historically pleasurable side of things alone. But it's the dynamics between all the disparate characters, seen through Abigail's eyes as she becomes less self-centered, and the rather tense mystery of what she needs to do to make it home, that make the book truly excellent.
Although the happy ending is, perhaps, a bit hard to swallow (three years later, an all grown up and much nicer Abigail finds love), I'm glad the author made sure we find out what exactly happened to everyone! In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I see why it won the Children's Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year in 1981.
Ruth Park died this December; here is her obituary from the New York Times. This was the first book of hers I've read, but happily my library system has others....I think I'll try My Sister Sif next; its an ecological fantasy with merpeople.
(Note on age: this isn't a book for younger kids- Abigail is most definitely teen-aged-ish in her preocupations and concerns, and there's a description of a brothel that isn't for the faint of heart).
A movie version was made of this, back in the 1980s. Here's an excerpt. It was a bad time hair-wise, the 1980s, both for Abigail, apparently, and for me...I had the same hair cut. Sigh.