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Setting

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Like most of Wrightson's books, Balyet is set in Australia. The story's events all occur within a small patch of hill country, apparently just a few miles' drive out from the safe, familiar city. Yet Jo's ventures into the vine-shaded pool, the rocky slopes, and the tangled gullies take her far, far away from the markers of civilization. The ancient, lonely stretches of the island continent seem to loom just beyond the clearing and its camp. Balyet, as a creature from a time long past, can roam this vast, wild region which means only danger for her present-day counterpart. This fact, and the layers of legend and mystery woven through the landscape, make it more than just the background for a novel. The land is almost a separate presence here, without which the story would not take place at all.

At the same time this setting is described so clearly and matter-of-factly that non-Australian readers will have no trouble visualizing it. Only a few plant and animal names are unique to the region. Likewise the social setting emphasizes ordinary, contemporary features rather than anything uniquely Australian. Cars, motorbikes, baby-sitting, and university attendance are all mentioned in the story. This makes the book easily accessible to young-adult readers of all levels of sophistication. It also heightens the ambiguity and symbolism in the story, as tragic long-past events are almost reenacted in an otherwise normal social setting. Wrightson has said that she only became able to draw on the aboriginal lore of her country by "going through the land" for a connection. Her success in weaving landscape and lore together are evident in the finely-drawn setting of Balyet.

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The author has effectively built the story around a myth of the aboriginal Australians, first recorded in the 1880s. The tale itself is native to Australia; its air of loneliness in a vast arena of time and space seems to belong uniquely to this long-isolated continent. But the thematic concerns discussed in the previous section can be found in many other stories as well. Quarrels between brothers, impulsive youths defying social custom, an undead spirit whose touch kills even when it seeks to love, a natural realm where hidden powers infuse the stones and trees—each appears over and over again in literature and myth from all corners of the world. These draw on universal emotions and fantasies. Patricia Wrightson has used the motifs to tell a story which works on a philosophical level as well as the familiar plot line of a teen-ager being drawn into strange adventure.

The prose style is simple and crystal clear. The focus shifts back and forth between Jo and Mrs. Willet so that the reader can understand the actions of both. Balyet's thoughts and words come as echoes, repeated plaintively as they bounce across the hills and gullies. This is a singularly effective device for conveying the loneliness and confusion the little spirit feels. Her cries of Sister! and What will I do? blend into Hide in the hills! and finally a seeking, puzzled plaint as she calls out Where is death?

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Balyet is based on a legend of Australia's aboriginal people, and contains two women (one real, the other a spirit) of this heritage as main characters. The author treats both the legend and the characters with respect. Even the seemingly cruel custom which exiles Balyet from human contact is explained as reasonable in another time and world view. There is no sense here that any group or culture is inferior to another; they are simply different.

This attitude is maintained so evenly throughout the book that teachers and parents may want to explore its validity in discussion. Might Balyet's exile have been a cruel and unusual punishment even for her own time? Does holding Balyet guilty in the blood brothers' fight say anything about the position of women in that society? Likewise, does the "like calls to like" principle of magic that operates so strongly in this story have the same level of validity as the common-sense rules of cause and effect? These are questions without a single answer, but well worth thinking about.

Somewhat awkward is the handling of age. When Jo finally realizes the dangers in letting Balyet touch her, she desperately cries out: "You're not young and pretty, you're . . . old and cruel! . . . You're old inside." And Balyet, who has been whispering to Jo to join her because we're young, howls in pain and turns away, crying for death to find her. Because of the complexity of the story, it is difficult to tell whether this exchange, the climactic turning point in the novel, represents a real devaluation of older people, or whether it merely signals Balyet's belated recognition that time has passed her by, and the experiences she missed in her youth can never be recaptured. Unfortunately, young readers who can well identify with Jo's reluctance to join an "old, old" entity as sister and friend may unthinkingly reflect the former attitude. Here again, some reflection and discussion may be helpful. The fact that it is Mrs. Willet whose efforts ultimately rescue both Jo and Balyet may counteract the disgust revealed in the preceding passage.

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

De Montreville, Doris, and Elizabeth D. Crawford. "Patricia Wrightson." In Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1978: 355-356. Although somewhat dated, this article is valuable for the autobiographical sketch in which the author explains how she came to love literature and to write.

Fader, Ellen. "Balyet." In School Library Journal 35 (April 1989): 120. Short, mostly favorable review pointing out how the author has added to the original legend, and her creative combination of ancient folklore with modern characters.

Heins, Ethel L. "Balyet." In Horn Book 65 (July/August 1989): 143. Appreciative review which summarizes the plot and pays tribute to Wrightson's clear and brilliant style.

"Wrightson, (Alice) Patricia." In Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 36. Detroit: Gale, 1992: 462- 466. This long article includes biographical data, a list of the many awards won by the author, discussion of some of her works (although not Balyet), and a lengthy guide to further resources.