H(esba) F(ay) Brinsmead Essay - Critical Essays

Brinsmead, H(esba) F(ay)


H(esba) F(ay) Brinsmead 1922–

Australian novelist for young adults and younger children.

Brinsmead is among the first Australian writers to write specifically for young adults. Her belief that their needs and feelings are important is reflected in her novels. With directness, understanding, and relevance, she depicts realistic characters learning to cope with themselves and their world. Brinsmead began writing for a teenage audience when her own sons reached adolescence and she discovered the lack of suitable, interesting titles for them. She decided to write novels which would tell the truth about life, doing so with hope and humor; her respected position among young adult readers suggests the achievement of her goal.

Brinsmead is considered adept at portraying background and characterization. She sets her books in both urban and rural Australia, an unfamiliar landscape to most readers, but one she describes evocatively; her stories reflect both the beauty and the harshness of this land. She often writes both inside and outside her characters, analyzing their emotions while narrating their adventures. Usually concentrating on groups rather than on individuals, she shows the growth and development of each member during the course of her stories. Brinsmead creates memorable adolescents and equally well-defined adult characters.

Many of Brinsmead's books deal with social problems and the tensions caused by racial and class prejudice. In her first novel, Pastures of the Blue Crane, Ryl discovers she is part Aborigine; in Listen to the Wind a black boy and white girl go into partnership to restore a trawler in a fishing community where whites and blacks, both upper and lower class, live alongside each other. Beat of the City is perhaps her most controversial work. Brinsmead drops her usual role of detached narrator to angrily expose the attitudes and actions of youth in the mid-sixties. Although Brinsmead's overt authorial voice is often considered moralistic and pretentious, critics recognize the relevance of her subject and the accuracy of its depiction. Brinsmead has drawn from her own childhood for Longtime Passing and several of her recent books for younger readers.

Brinsmead's flaws, such as her lack of discipline, repetitiveness, and tendency to spoil the flow of her narratives with tedious messages, are often felt to be compensated for by her sincerity and exhilaration. Her genuine interest in young people and knowledge of human nature are perhaps the main reasons for Brinsmead's universal appeal. Brinsmead received the Australian Children's Book Council book of the year award in 1965 for Pastures of the Blue Crane and in 1972 for Longtime Passing. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

The Junior Bookshelf

[H. F. Brinsmead,] like Nan Chauncy and Patricia Wrightson, writes within the narrow context of an Australian scene but with an awareness of human values which is universal.

Pastures of the Blue Crane is a most appealing story of a young girl's growth into womanhood. The theme is common enough, though rarely carried out well; what gives an original slant to this story is the honest treatment of an unfamiliar situation…. [Ryl] grows, beautifully and convincingly, before our eyes from a cold, priggish snob into a delightfully alive, unpredictable human being. It is a lovely study. The setting too is vividly evoked.

There remains a doubt whether this is a book for children. It is beyond question a sensitive and true picture of adolescence…. It is in fact a book for the odd child, and after all we have plenty of books for the ordinary child.

"For the Intermediate Library: 'Pastures of the Blue Crane'," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 28, No. 5, November, 1964, p. 327.

The Times Literary Supplement

Pastures of the Blue Crane pretends to be a serious book, while really being a romantic one. This is a pity, because if Mrs. Brinsmead had been less ambitious, it would have been a good romantic novel, about slightly older teenagers, which is just what the younger ones like best…. It is quite a good story, with some likeable characters, but Mrs. Brinsmead's introduction of the race problem overwhelms it, and the discovery that the heroine is the half-caste boy's sister is too easy a solution of a difficult problem.

"Socio-Romantic: Novels for Older Girls," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1964; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3274, November 26, 1964, p. 1074.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

[Season of the Briar provides a] sense of real freshness. Here is a double story, converging in the end to make one: of a party of youngsters spending a summer with a weed-spraying unit, and another party who are bush-walking. The beginning has a tone of rather chummy facetiousness, but once the two parties arrive in a lost valley in Tasmania …, a fine sharpness sets in: beautiful natural descriptions, a great relish for oddity of character and for the irritations that arise among young people: and a final drama of truly breath-taking quality…. One of the virtues of this very distinguished story lies in the way it glances at the limitations of conventional heroism.

"A Wider World," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3328, December 9, 1965, p. 1138.∗

Colin Field

[H. F. Brinsmead's] quality shows itself particularly in her characters' response to [the crisis in Season of the Briar]. There is Fred—apparently dull and phlegmatic—whose response is practical and realistic. And there is Matt, the philosophy student—lively, intelligent and idealistic—who overestimates his physical capacities, underestimates the powers of nature, and who becomes a liability to the rescue parties.

Season of the Briar also has the flavour of the best mountaineering and polar travel accounts, because the author is especially skilful and imaginative in recording the effects on her characters of the extremes of topography and of climate.

This book is not just another adventure story written for adolescents … for the action is the outcome of character. There is no manipulation of characters in order to give the reader a superficial thrill.

Colin Field, "Book Reviews: 'Season of the Briar'," in The School Librarian and School Library Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, March, 1966, p. 105.

Nancy Quint Weiss

The character stereotypes [in "Pastures of the Blue Crane"] and the busy plot strain the reader's credulity; and the race problem is so artificially imposed on the story one has the uncomfortable feeling that the author has used it solely to give her book tone and substance.

Nancy Quint Weiss, "For the Young Reader: 'Pastures of the Blue Crane'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 10, 1966, p. 20.

(The entire section is 77 words.)

Zena Sutherland

[Pastures of the Blue Crane is a] long junior novel, naive in one sense, sophisticated in another—and very good reading. [It has] a plot both romantic and provocatively different…. At the age of sixteen, [Amaryllis Merewether] is told by a lawyer that she has inherited half her father's fortune; the other half belongs to a man sitting across the room. This impoverished pensioner is her grandfather. The two go off to an inherited property and find the joys of family life, belonging, creative work, friendly neighbors, the beauty of nature, et cetera. The exotic quality of the topography and flora frequently described save the exposition from dullness, and the important message and theme woven through all this...

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Geoffrey Trease

In Beat of the City we have an outstanding illustration not only of the Australian efflorescence but of the revolution in themes, attitudes and vocabulary that has transformed children's fiction as a whole in the last decade or two. The particular city is Melbourne, but in a sense it could be any modern city. Here is the universal teenage world of puzzled parents and their sulky, sultry offspring—a world of transistors and motor-bikes, deception and delinquency, flick-knives and jazz groups and the juvenile courts, a world with an understandable fascination for countless boys and girls who never experience its seamier excitements for themselves.

I can hear the snorts of shocked grandfathers...

(The entire section is 260 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

[Beat of the City] is a rich, honest, sometimes funny book. Unusually some of the real agonies—and ugliness—of the adolescent world come through. But there is also a tiresome tendency to hammer pretentiously poetic moral judgments and analyses, till they seem more or less facile.

"Groups and Gangs," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3378, November 24, 1966, p. 1085.∗

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The Junior Bookshelf

[Beat of the City] is a mature book…. The author expounds the attitudes of the "beat generation" with sympathetic insight, at the same time showing she thinks them wrong-headed. The city of Melbourne is portrayed with the same critical affection. The principal characters are so alive that the reader develops a real concern for them.

"For the Intermediate Library: 'Beat of the City'," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 31, No. 1, February, 1967, p. 65.

(The entire section is 71 words.)

Robert Bell

Modern youth is wont to complain that it is misunderstood; this author at least shows a deep understanding of the outlook, motives and values of contemporary adolescents, together with a rare sympathy and compassion. [Beat of the City] introduces the reader to a number of young people of wide diversity of character and circumstance whose lives touch each other, and tells of the effects this has on them. Adults play their part, too, and are just as vividly and sympathetically portrayed. Not the least dominant is the city [of Melbourne] itself, which virtually projects an identity of its own. The book has a sincere and genuine realism which will hold the attention and command the admiration of all teenage...

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Dorothy M. Broderick

Season of the Briar … is not a good book by any standard…. There is foolish heroism (Matt) and studied cowardice (Douglas) and remorse by Bruce over his failure as a leader….

The lack of a central character is not necessarily a defect, but the unfocused confusion of Season of the Briar is too much. Ivan Southall's Ash Road and Hills End are much better representatives of Australian books which depict the reaction of characters under stress.

Dorothy M. Broderick, "Children's Book World: 'Season of the Briar'," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1967 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and...

(The entire section is 105 words.)

Margery Fisher

In A Sapphire for September one character (the prospector Charlie Light) and one Blue Mountain township (the Old Vale) remind us of the past. In the ghost town one house is inhabited—the Huntsmans' home, built by an ancestor; the family stands for continuity, a factor dominant, though they hardly realise it, in the lives of the youths and girls whose talk is all of the present. They are on an expedition, these young people, to find uncut gem-stones, when they envelop the Huntsmans in their friendliness and, hearing the old house is threatened by speculators, work out a wild but surprisingly successful plot to rout them…. [Binny and Adam] gather the action round them but the author manages her narrative so...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

At least half the anguish of adolescence is ecstatic clutching at the treasures of an opening world. Growing pains may come largely from indigestion, from too big and greedily gulped a helping of life.

So it is with H. F. Brinsmead's Binny Flambeau (in A Sapphire for September)…. The author draws an irresistible picture of her absurd, adorable heroine in the pangs of first love…. After the absorbing, always convincing adventures, dramatic and comic, which form the action of the book, Binny has enjoyed—or suffered—many experiences, has visited worlds outside the crowded streets of Sydney, and is on the threshold of another discovery, of her self.

A Sapphire for...

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The Junior Bookshelf

[A Sapphire for September is the] best Brinsmead yet—it will be interesting a few decades hence to know how many New Australians were inspired by reading her books in the '60s and '70s, though her main message is not "Come to Australia" but "Come to life". Her Binny Flambeau is lively enough, though somewhat rootless and aimless until dreamer and student Adam sweeps her into a group of rock-hounds in Sydney. She cannot understand Adam but adores him with a puppy-love whose waxing and waning is neatly conveyed as the group, a wildly assorted bunch, converges on a deserted township…. Full of young people and their talk, but with a memorable ballast of older people, like old Charley Light the gem-specker who...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

Jean C. Thomson

Despite an uncommonly good writing style, the author's faintly ironical air [in Beat of the City] will seem to rebuke sensitive readers even before they've had a chance to get involved. Sounding like a parent all the way (calling a transistor radio a "perfect anesthetic," for example), the author remains an observer with an ax to grind—the reverse of S. E. Hinton's attitude in The Outsiders.

Jean C. Thomson, "Junior High Up: 'Beat of the City'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the January 15, 1968 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1968),...

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E. N. Bewick

[Brinsmead's] characterization is always strongly individual. Some of the people about whom she writes might well be termed eccentric, but all of them are lively and real. She is in particular sympathy with the needs of adolescents and her portrait of Binny [in A Sapphire for September], with her alternating moods of gaiety and despair, should have an instant appeal to adolescent readers.

E. N. Bewick, "Eleven to Fifteen: 'A Sapphire for September'," in The School Librarian and School Library Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, March, 1968, p. 88.

(The entire section is 85 words.)

Sidney Offit

Introducing ["Beat of the City"] her tale of youngsters in search of identity in an Australian metropolis, H. F. Brinsmead observes, "In Melbourne that year the way-outs were in." For Melbourne read New York or San Francisco and this teen-age shibboleth seems no less appropriate….

[The] author describes her native land vividly and often lyrically. But the more reflective reader will find Mrs. Brinsmead's swiftly moving narrative rarely pauses to give a penetrating look into either teenagers themselves or the symbols of their aspirations.

Sidney Offit, "New Books for Young Readers: 'Beat of the City'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The...

(The entire section is 113 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

[Isle of the Sea Horse contains] a perpetually interesting situation …—a group of people, isolated, fending for themselves, getting to know each other and themselves. The new book has a kinder view of human nature than [William Golding's] Lord of the Flies, for instance. The five learn to trust and accept each other…. There is much of interest here but children need to recognize and identify. Ivan Southall's To the Wild Sky will mean much more to them. And it is disappointing that, in trying to produce something so very different, Mrs. Brinsmead has lost all the zest and pace of her last book, A Sapphire for September. (p. 1203)

"Half a World...

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Margery Fisher

This very ambitious Robinsonnade [Isle of the Sea Horse] does not entirely come off—partly perhaps because the author sets herself a task impossible to achieve even in an unusually long junior novel. Her castaways are as disparate as her groups of characters usually are…. Wrecked in a hurricane on an uninhabited island in the Great Barrier Reef, the group makes its shifting alignments while managing to sustain life and, more, to discover evidence of previous castaways, some very surprising. And there is the sea horse itself, symbol of freedom—symbol to the author, perhaps, of nature untamed by pushing civilisation. The book needs a harder, stiffer form to contain its many threads of feeling, of plot, of...

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Mrs. G. V. Barton

["Isle of the Sea Horse" contains plenty of emotional turmoil] which could, if over-exploited, become yet another agony-packed marathon, rather a feature of some current Australian fiction for young people.

However Mrs. Brinsmead handles her material with a restraint and lyricism reminiscent of her first and, in this reviewer's opinion, best book "Pastures of the Blue Crane". Emma is certainly her most sympathetic heroine to date, observed with a refreshing lack of that sense of condescension that has rather marred her last two books. Descriptions of desert island life are vivid, and there are some interesting sidelights on Australian history during the castaways' discoveries on the island.


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H. F. Brinsmead

I was painfully aware that, around the book shops, and especially around the most accessible ones—the shelves of paperbacks in the corner store, the stand in the railway station—there was not a great deal of material that catered to the teenager. So—thought I—"I'll do something about this!" I pictured myself turning out books that would not be so unsophisticated as to insult the young ego—not so trivial as to insult the young (and often deep) intelligence—yet not filled with adult experience far beyond their own, which I suspect leads to a distorted view of reality. I dreamed of a Utopia where any fourteen-year-old might walk up to a bookstall—any small bookstall near home—and pluck from...

(The entire section is 1139 words.)

Margery Fisher

[In Listen to the Wind] there is a unique problem of class and colour…. H. F. Brinsmead explores the racial situation with understanding…. I am a little puzzled by the emotional content of the book. The actual given age of the two young people does not seem entirely borne out by their reaction to events nor by their attitude to each other, whether mildly romantic or comradely…. There is scope here for stronger and franker writing but it seems characteristic of this author that while she draws her backgrounds with a very mature force, her books leave the final impression of being rather longer versions of the good old "holiday adventure". (pp. 1580-81)


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The Times Literary Supplement

"Children's books"—what can be done with this awkward, misleading term? Readers here, of course, will know very well how nearly adult the novels can be that come within its scope. They may also have observed how increasingly fashionable is the fictional age-zone between 16 and 20 or so…. Has any one of our current leading dozen novelists yet resisted an experiment in this field? Probably not—and out of all of them, few can have attacked it with more personality and verve than H. F. Brinsmead, who has, in fact, preferred this "older" age-group from the start.

One has to remember that Brinsmead people are also Australian, in an Australian scene: suns burn brighter, spaces are vaster, landscapes...

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Mrs. J. Paton Walsh

[Listen to the Wind] is basically a sentimental book; a love story in which everything comes all right in the end; it is also a very old-fashioned story, a long one, told with complete realism, describing a place and all its people faithfully until one knows it as well as anywhere: like a real place. The reader will also learn to sympathise both with the despised 'Islanders' and with Tam, who wants to get away from being one of them. Mrs. Brinsmead certainly justifies both her story and her way of telling it in this deeply satisfying, wise and tender book.

Mrs. J. Paton Walsh, "Fiction: 'Listen to the Wind'," in Children's Book News (copyright © 1970 by Baker Book...

(The entire section is 124 words.)

The Junior Bookshelf

Mrs. Brinsmead demonstrates once more her mastery of the social scene and her profound understanding of what makes humans tick [in Listen to the Wind]. Her demonstration is enlivened with wit and high humour; few writers today, whether they profess to write for children or for adults, have so keen and relevant a sense of fun.

The scene is O'Brian's Point. Places matter a great deal to this writer, and here she paints a beautiful picture of a broken-down settlement of blackfellers and poor whites. Here lives Bella Greenrush …, everybody's dream mum. One of her family is Tam who, alone of the Greenrushes, has ambition. He has, too, a white friend, the lovely teenage Loveday Smith. There are...

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Margery Fisher

Who calls from afar? is built round a sturdy statement that we are all responsible for the future; is man capable of keeping the resolution recorded on the moon that he 'comes in peace'? The moral is well integrated in the story of a girl in her middle 'teens who leaves the urban rat race for back-of-beyond New South Wales and takes a job as secretary at an earth-station relaying messages via satellite to the United States. The flight of Apollo 11 provides the centrepiece for a story involving, as all H. F. Brinsmead's books do, a host of major and minor characters with their attendant prejudices and preoccupations. This could have been a first rate story but for two things—its excessive length and (both...

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The Junior Bookshelf

There is much that is interesting in [Who Calls From Afar?], as, for instance, the description of the Earth Station with its complex instruments for telecommunication via "Fred" the satellite. There is humour and perhaps a message for young people too, for, as the Professor says, too many of our actions and thoughts are determined by "remote control", as are those of the cosmonauts, and it is essential that the pattern should be broken at times.

The author has a deep concern for young people and understands them, as is evident in this book as in her others, but the story is more superficial and not as absorbing as usual and the central characters are not as real as the four young people in...

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Frank Eyre

[H. F. Brinsmead writes] unusually varied stories of different aspects of Australian country and city life. Her first book, Pastures of the Blue Crane, dealt remarkably successfully and convincingly with the problems faced by a sixteen-year-old girl who … triumphs over a succession of setbacks, including the belated discovery that she is of part coloured blood. H. F. Brinsmead's books are all about adolescent girls and they are among the best examples of the newer type of children's book, which bridges the gap between the children's book proper and adult reading. Beat of the City dealt not altogether convincingly but courageously with under-privileged adolescents in Melbourne. Her later books are...

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John Rowe Townsend

Mrs Brinsmead's novels are for teenagers and are mostly about teenagers. No pre-adolescent child has a significant part to play in any of them. The teenagers come and go, as teenagers will, in a crowd; they are always on the move. The books themselves are full of warmth and energy and tend to have large casts, plenty of incident, and unusual richness of background. Not only do things happen; people change and develop. All Mrs Brinsmead's books are concerned with what she herself calls 'the problem of how to cope with life'. They are also concerned with the stage which comes before coping: namely finding out who and what you are.

She is particularly good at drawing the teenagers as...

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The Times Literary Supplement

Longtime is the fictional name of a settlement in the Australian bluegum forest. Based on the author's own childhood, [Longtime Passing] is the story of the Truelance family who settled there in the years of the Depression….

By turns funny and grim, this is an authentic narrative of a comparatively neglected, unheroic aspect of Australian development. Grown-ups and children are portrayed equally vividly: what they have in common is an essentially Australian blend of toughness and sentimentality which will appeal to readers….

"Scratching a Living," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The...

(The entire section is 105 words.)

The Junior Bookshelf

Longtime Passing is a sincere and simple account of one family's experience in the Australian Outback…. The narrative … is vivid and exciting and honest…. [Four] children, of whom the author is the youngest, grow up in this wild, mysterious, majestic country and watch with secret horror "progress" take over their land.

There is little more for me to say. It is a very good book by any standards and will be enjoyed by readers of all ages…. [The] reader should have some experience of life to appreciate the heights and depths of the writing.

"For Children from Ten to Fourteen: 'Longtime Passing'," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 36, No. 4,...

(The entire section is 110 words.)

Margo Petts

Although the canvas [in Longtime Passing] is a small one, the many details are clearly defined, presenting us with a picture which is full of life and vitality, though what it depicts is now only a memory….

A delightfully nostalgic piece of writing, full of domestic laughter and tears….

Margo Petts, "Reviews: 'Longtime Passing'," in Children's Book Review (© 1972 by Five Owls Press Ltd.; all rights reserved), Vol. II, No. 4, September, 1972, p. 112.

(The entire section is 71 words.)

Dennis Hamley

To say that [Longtime Passing] is an example of a fairly common and by now fairly hackneyed type—the family saga—is in no way to devalue it. The story is partly autobiographical; the material is obviously very close to the author—and this comes out in the affectionate quality of the writing. There is a sensitive delineation of place and the effective, memorable drawing of character. However, probably because its plan is strictly chronological, the book lacks subtlety. (p. 251)

Nevertheless, the understanding shown in the chronicling of the unequal struggle between the old and the new, the sense of the passage of time and the relationships between the generations made me think—and the...

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Marcus Crouch

[H. F. Brinsmead's] interest and sympathy embrace the whole spectrum of Australia, urban and rural. Her first book, Pastures of the Blue Crane …, is mostly a country book, however, and one which shows the formative influence of landscape and a free life in the open upon an unhappy, neglected girl. (p. 159)

Mrs Brinsmead shows with exquisite sensibility how a girl who has had everything in life except affection grows in contact with real problems….

No writer today knows more than Mrs Brinsmead about the workings of an adolescent girl's mind; certainly no one expounds her theme with greater affection, but it is an affection free of illusions. (p. 160)


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Margery Fisher

Sandy Creek, a derelict mining settlement in Queensland, is the setting, harsh and compelling, for The Ballad of Benny Perhaps. Benny has dropped out of university and headed back to the shacks and shafts of his boyhood, where he is confronted with an old antagonist, Rozzer Bizley, just out of prison and looking for revenge for Benny's intervention in his trickery…. Raucous humour, rough sincerity and sentiment, characterise the noisy idiom and violent scenes of the book; worlds away from the deployment of young people in Beat of the City, this story has a harsh note in it that matches the setting. (p. 3364)

Margery Fisher, "An Experience of Conflict," in her...

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