Mavis Thorpe Clark Essay - Critical Essays

Clark, Mavis Thorpe


Mavis Thorpe Clark 1912?–

(Has also written under pseudonym of Mavis Latham) Australian young adult novelist, adult biographer and short story writer, and scriptwriter for children's radio programs. Either the outback, the virgin forests of Victoria, the opal mines, the islands off Tasmania, or some other well-researched Australian setting is the background for each of Clark's teenage novels. Her gift for atmosphere combined with strong plot development makes her books extremely popular in her native Australia, where she has won several awards, most notably the 1967 Children's Book of the Year award for The Min-Min. This novel, which most critics consider to be her best, brought Clark to the attention of British and American young adult readership. Most of her subsequent books have been published in Great Britain and America as well as Australia. Her novels tend to be concerned with social issues, to the detriment of her characters and plot, some critics contend. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60, and Something about the Author, Vol. 8.)

Reg in The Min-min is a young tough whom neither father nor schoolmaster can control. His sister Sylvie is beginning to look beyond the cramped, uneasy life her family leads in the settlers' camp on the Australian railroad, and when Reg is finally threatened with "an institution" they leave home to cross the desert to the home of the Tucker family. The descriptive matter has all the attractive menace of the Australian landscape, yet the actual flight of the children is less gripping than one expects. The min-min, the will o' the wisp light in the desert, is an inconstant symbol in every way…. The inevitable resolution is not shirked, however. Sylvie returns to look after the family, Reg faces the institution with increased self-control. (p. 454)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 25, 1967.

In Britain it is hard to imagine a land where it hardly ever rains, where the sun blazes down day after day, and where it is possible to go for miles without seeing any sign of life or habitation. Mavis Thorpe Clark has chosen this setting for [The Min-Min] and made it possible to realise that such conditions do exist. Her characters are real people, so that along with them one can feel the heat and the thirst and wonder if one will die a lingering death out in the Australian desert…. Children of all ages will appreciate this story because it will mirror their own lives, to a certain extent, and yet give them a glimpse into a completely different way of life at the same time. (p. 179)

The Junior Bookshelf, June, 1967.

Blue Above the Trees is a brilliantly fresh example [of pioneer literature]. In the 1870s the Whitburns have come from Devon to cultivate 600 acres of infinitely ancient forest in Victoria, Australia….

[There are family tensions enough] to keep any story going, and the author makes the most of them: very subtly, too, for the way of life of the family of lyrebirds that Simon observes year after year is ironically but unobtrusively contrasted with the dissatisfactions and strains within the human family. All is well in the end, but not until after real excitements—of achievement or setback. The story gives one a haunting familiarity with the forest, the paths through it, the growing areas of cultivation. (p. 583)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 6, 1968.

The plot [of Blue Above the Trees] is gripping, the characterization strong and the background authentic. The Whitburn family come out from England in the middle of the nineteenth century to retrieve their fortunes in the great virgin forest of Victoria…. The blue above the trees of the title is symbolic of the clearing of the vast forest and also one feels of the clearing of their way of life. In the raw, problems are stripped to their basic conceptions. The period is a part of the development of the Commonwealth that we in Britain know very little about and this book will be a good introduction for teenage readers, both boys and girls. The descriptions of life in early cabins, both domestic and social, are interesting and those of the primitive jungle are magnificent, one can almost smell it. Thirteen to fifteen year olds will be fascinated by it and in a strange way will possibly identify themselves, subconsciously, with their Whitburn contemporaries in their struggle for freedom, parental and otherwise. (pp. 235-36)

The Junior Bookshelf, August, 1968.

Jane Manthorne

With powerfully simple understatement Mavis Clark paints [in "The Min-Min"] the harsh land down under and the people and wild things which survive there. Her strong, terse prose is reminiscent of Mary Patchett's "Cry of the Heart" and evokes tears. Her images are pragmatic and original: the rising moon looks like the "round full yoke of a yellow egg," and an approaching train sounds like "wind in the earth's stomach." (p. 26)

Jane Manthorne, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 25, 1970.

Margery Fisher

The interplay of action and character in Spark of opal marks this as a book which has something to say to the teens; boys and girls may recognise problems of their own in its pages, even if it is unlikely that many of them will find themselves in exactly comparable situations…. With the thrills of opal-mining to dominate the plot, the growing pains of the young people and their friends provide a second theme of absorbing interest…. The author makes her points forcibly in the context of a community with its own customs and prejudices, and the background of the story is as fascinating as its events. (p. 1709)

Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, April, 1971.

Mavis Clark explores [in Spark of Opal] several sets of relationships skilfully—within the Watson family, between the aborigines and the settlers, between the various groups of opal-mad miners. The conflicts, friendships and enmities are deftly traced and interwoven, and the unusual, lonely setting gives a lively impression of pioneer days and ways with modern trimmings. (p. 240)

The Junior Bookshelf, August, 1971.

[Iron Mountain is a] successor to The Min-Min (1969) which doesn't sag under the virtues of the first book and again surfaces with a firmly realistic contemporary story of the land down under where, in the far West, there are new worlds as well as selves to conquer…. The story is authoritatively framed and in itself has lots of grit and go-ahead momentum. (p. 1020)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1971 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), September 15, 1971.

Virginia Haviland

Joey, a troubled boy on probation for reckless driving in Melbourne, leaves his cheerless home and is fortunate in hitching a two-thousand-mile ride to a mining community in western Australia [in Iron Mountain]…. Joey's unsuccessful attempt to hide his past, and the problems of the individuals in Leah's family fill an engrossing, well-told story. The exaggerated geographical conditions heighten tensions; and the hot, dust-filled iron-mining country, where workers receive hardship bonuses and air-conditioned company houses, even becomes a protagonist. One can easily envision the mining operations, the dangers of the trackless mountain terrain and the cyclones, and Joey's and Woodie's follies. Joey, who could become excited because of the impressiveness and the beauty of the mountain colors, makes a strong central figure: and his decisions from first to last are convincing. (p. 561)

Virginia Haviland, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1972 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), February, 1972.

[Iron Mountain, an Australian novel,] has a sense of purpose, of didacticism even, which belongs to a developing art; this country's freedom from it is perhaps a sign of incipient decadence. Iron Mountain, for all its contemporary technology, is a moral tale and a remarkably good one. The action becomes suspended from time to time while the actors listen to...

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C.E.J. Smith

Mavis Thorpe Clark evokes her locale and creates her characters [in Iron Mountain] with the same expertise she showed in Spark of Opal and Blue Above the Trees. While one is concerned about Woodie Rose's escapade on the loading wharf at Dampier, or with Amanda Rose's getting lost in the bush, one does not realise how much technical and topographical detail the author is using to sustain her narrative. (p. 113)

C.E.J. Smith, in Children's Book Review (© 1972 by Five Owls Press Ltd.; all rights reserved), September, 1972.

The rough, desolate ambience of an isolated Australian mining town is [Spark of...

(The entire section is 161 words.)

Karin K. Bricker

Opal mining provides an interesting and well-integrated background [for Spark of Opal]: however, most of the characters show only minimal development and the plot unfolds through exposition rather than action. (p. 73)

Karin K. Bricker, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the April, 1973 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1973), April, 1973.

The wildfire that periodically ravages Victoria, Australia is the villain and chief protagonist [in Wildfire], and ranged against it are the Mob, a predictably varied lot of local children who find themselves...

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Margery Fisher

In Wildfire there is a deliberate, vital contrast between two boys of fourteen…. [Their] hostility to one another becomes serious when a runaway bushfire threatens the district. The subject of bushfires may be common enough in stories from Australia, but this one commands attention for the vivacity and force of the author's descriptions and narrative technique, and above all for her manipulation of her characters. (p. 2428)

Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, July, 1974.

(The entire section is 73 words.)

Virginia Haviland

The first third of [Wildfire], in which many characters are introduced, moves with a relatively slow pace: but the narrative turns suddenly to descriptions of the frenzied onrush of wind, smoke, and flame as wildfire erupts. As brilliantly graphic as the succession of fire scenes is the quiet after-math, when, with rain falling, the forest is seen "burned into stillness." Central to the story are four individualized teenagers and an eight-year-old…. When the holocaust is over, each of them is a different person…. (p. 140)

Virginia Haviland, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1974 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), October, 1974.


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Robert Unsworth

Although the evocation of the dreariness of the strip-mined land is well done, the lore of the Chinese immigrants who worked the mines interesting, and the description of the near disaster in the tunnel excellent, there are problems [in If the Earth Falls In]. The opening chapters, abounding with characters and characterization, are slow going; Louise [the 15-year-old protagonist] is unusually introspective for her young years; and many readers will be stumped by the Australian jargon … for which there is no glossary. This is an intelligent novel; however, there are too few tenacious readers who will see it through to its exciting finish. (p. 50)

Robert Unsworth, in...

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Virginia Haviland

[The tactics used by three young people to escape from a caved-in mine shaft], described in graphic detail, advance [If the Earth Falls In] with increasing pace and make the three characters intensely alive for the reader. Subsidiary to this action, but important to Louise's resolution, is the disposition of a valuable painting on glass…. The combination of smoothly interwoven elements makes for engrossing reading. (p. 161)

Virginia Haviland, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1976 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), April, 1976.

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Rebecca J. Lukens

Although complexity and variety in themes may be one of the strongest proofs of [a] work's excellence, most literature for children seems to center upon a primary theme. When a story contains a variety of themes, they are often linked. The central idea, for example, of young people trying to find the best direction for their lives is explored in Mavis Thorpe Clark's Spark of Opal, a story set in the opal mines of Australia. The young people work the opal mine with inadequate equipment: Youth proves itself by daring to do adult jobs. Liz Watson nearly decides to fail so the family need not move to a school town: One can be torn between love of family and need to develop one's self. Liz and her mother are...

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Zena Sutherland

[There is an unexpectedly touching ending to The Sky Is Free,] a story that reflects the flinty, harsh life of the opal mining country. Characterization, dialogue, and setting are of equally high quality. (p. 73)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1977 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), January, 1977.

[The Hundred Islands] takes place on an island off Australia where Greg, Jenny, and Darryl have grown up together and where Greg, dead serious about the island's ecology, now confronts his hard-working sheep farmer father, who thinks feeding people is more important than...

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Susan Sprague

The author's concern about endangered Australian wildlife certainly comes across [in The Hundred Islands]: however, the pages and pages describing birds' migrating, mating, and behavior patterns swamp this story of a young man's struggle to go to college…. Some of the characters are overdone and don't ring true—Jenny's too dedicated to her cause, Greg's mother is so timid she feigns a toothache to get out of the house—and the plot with its plethora of puzzling words (not defined in context) is forced and melodramatic. (p. 123)

Susan Sprague, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the September, 1977 issue of School Library Journal, published by R....

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Margery Fisher

The fairy-tale rags-to-riches plot [of Pony from Tarella] will be redeemed for some readers, though not for all, by the precise topography and agreeable open-air atmosphere of this Australian story. (p. 3190)

Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, October, 1977.

(The entire section is 38 words.)