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"'Today girls,' said Miss Renshaw, we shall go out into the beautiful garden and think about DEATH.'" [P3] From the opening we know that sinister things will happen.
The vast majority of the story takes place at a private school for girls in Sydney, Australia during 1967 while the Vietnam War was going on. Our story concerns the teacher, Miss Renshaw, and the eleven girls in her elementary class named Cubby, Icara, Martine, Bethany, Georgina, Cynthia, Dierdre, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth. The four Elizabeths are given no last names, and only differentiated by physical characteristics as height and hair style.
It seems that Ms. Renshaw has more than a passing interest in Morgan, the groundskeeper at the Ena Thompson Memorial Gardens where she regularly takes the girls on nature trips. She makes the girls complicit in her romantic diversions by telling them, "We won't mention these meetings with Morgan or other stuff will we girls...We won't mention Morgan." [p19] But the girls were a lot smarter than Miss Renshaw gave them credit for, as "They all knew...the real reason Miss Renshaw want to go out into the gardens that morning. It was not to think about death. Miss Renshaw wanted to see Morgan."
Soon after Miss Renshaw takes her class, with Morgan leading them, to some nearby Aboriginal caves supposedly to see the cave drawings at which time she and Morgan vanish. Yet as the girls pledged not to reveal anything about Morgan, they can't fully tell what happens to the authorities. The rest of the book is about just what happened and how it affects each of their lives.
The book is a close copy of an earlier book along very similar lines which was originally released by another Australian author Joan W. Lindsay in 1967 and was called PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK Picnic at Hanging Rock after which a 1975 movie also titled Picnic at Hanging Rock (The Criterion Collection) by Peter Weir was made. The only major plot difference between those two items and the current story is that in the PICNIC version the story takes place on Valentines Day of 1900 and two girls plus a teacher go missing. That book and the movie are also highly recommended.
Later in this story the girls get into a lively discussion about whether ghosts really exist, and if they do, can they live outdoors or must they be confined to interiors. The relevance of this doesn't become important until near the end of the book, so I won't spoil it for you, but do pay attention to who says what about it. Here it differs from the PICNIC book version.
The current story is very well told with a somewhat feminine and romantic writing style that imparts enough mystery to attract adults interested in some good clean scary storytelling. Highly recommended.
The best stories of Australia are anchored with the Aborigine creation story of the Dreaming World. This book shares that quality of events and thoughts born "themselves out of the insides of the Earth." Eleven little girls are led by their teacher, Miss Renshaw, on an outing into the gardens. To Cubby, it seems, "Perhaps there were no gardens- there was nothing but a wide, weightless plain of terrible light and freedom." Today a man has been hung for running from duty in Vietnam. They are led by their teacher to meet a conscientious objector, Morgan. Morgan is a beautiful poet and leads them to a secret cave to see the paintings from the Dreaming Times. The little girls run away from the darkness to wait for their teacher, who never returns.
While this book invokes the misty edges of fairy land, it is in no way a child's story. In fact it is the story of the slow emergence of the woman from a child. One can read the prose at its lovely surface presentation, or be drawn to the darker symbolism of life emerging from the end of other realities. The escape from the dark, primal cave itself has marked the little girls forever, and that symbolism remains universal in the world's symbolism. In a difficult task, the author successfully portrays very young girls in distinct and dimensional terms. The first part of this book returns us seamlessly to that time when reality is clearly distinct from the world of adults, and their actions are clouded in in their own purpose. This book is a little pearl of that time, set in the that magical world of the continent that seems to hold some extra charge.
The book is beautifully written, but the story is just plain odd. The schoolgirls keep the teacher's secret when she disappears on a field trip, but did she really disappear? She may have eloped with the gardener, or been murdered. Maybe she returns years later on Remembrance Day, or maybe not.
I had hoped this short novel would be as touching as Picnic st Hanging Rock; it's not. Some lovely writing and visual created in sections but the overall story line was unsatisfyingly weak in my opinion.
The inter-textual references are wonderful: hanging rock, the getting of wisdom, Tennyson, Wordsworth (to name but a few), Corinthians, references to Blackman's paintings in the titles of every chapter, and her historical embedding in news events of the times (1967 and 1975). Adults who remember these events will enjoy this as much as children