It's hard to believe the news of Patricia Wrightson's death. No doubt like all her friends, I thought she would live forever - with that sharp, searching intelligence, that gravelly voiced, old fashioned correctness of delivery, that passion for justice, that kindness and modesty.
Few Australian writers for young people have equalled and none have surpassed her achievements. Today, writers for young people sometimes begin their publishing careers when they are barely out of school themselves - and that's great. It might not earn you much money, but being a fulltime writer for children is no longer regarded as a virtual impossibility in Australia. This week, in fact, books by Australian children's writers and illustrators are being sought by publishers from all over the world at the annual children's book fair in Bologna, because they are energetic and varied, they tell compelling stories and they are brilliantly written.
Patricia Wrightson set out to provide something different from the mainly British books that were available to Australian children after World War 2. But it was such a risk at the time. The idea of children in Sweden, Slovenia, Korea, Brazil - not to mention those behemoths, the US and the UK - reading stories about young Australians was almost unheard of.
Both the United Nations and Australia's Children's Book Council were set up in 1945, the year the war ended, with an ideal (no doubt too simple, like all ideals) of creating a different future for humanity. If the Children's Book Council had an edge over the UN, it was in the hope that if you changed children's books, you could change children's minds; change children's minds and the adults they would become, and you might change the world - and never see the unspeakable horrors of world war again.
Like the Jindyworobak poets before her, Wrightson thought that it might be possible to reconcile Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian cultures and create a new kind of pan-Australian narrative, in which the human characters from both cultures were strongly aware of and influenced by the metaphysical world that Indigenous Australians had known for 60 000 years. It was a project in total alignment with the slogan for the first children's book week in 1946: 'United Through Books'. She was creating a new Australia of the imagination.
Her first novel, The Crooked Snake, was awarded Book of the Year in 1956 by the Children's Book Council. Wrightson was 35. Today that might be regarded as a late start for a writer, but even in this first book her writing shows the advantages of having waited: there's a maturity in her understanding of family life, children's relationships with one another and the natural environment. She went on to win Book of the Year a further three times and to win many other awards, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the most prestigious international award for children's literature. No other Australian writer has won it.
Although from that first book you can see Wrightson developing her career-long passion for the integration of Australian mythologies, it is in The Nargun and the Stars (Book of the Year 1974) and The Ice is Coming (Book of the Year 1978) that it is achieved with greatest success. Of course by this time Indigenous Australians were at last becoming a political force and their own voices in the arts were so strong and unique that Wrightson's project began to appear inappropriate. As women and gay and lesbian people in the 70s insisted on the right to speak for themselves, Indigenous Australians needed no one to speak for them. So the idea of a non-Indigenous woman writing about Indigenous subject matter to some readers began to feel like cultural appropriation, imperialist exploitation all over again.
Twenty-five years later, Clare Bradford would give a scathing account of Wrightson as not just politically incorrect but racist: a judgement that gave no concession to the writer's stated intentions or historical context. By then Wrightson herself had realised that her project should now be laid aside: there was no longer a need to remind non-Indigenous Australians about the richness of the land's first cultures, which so many of them had destroyed. Indigenous writers and artists had made her ideals irrelevant.
She continued to publish beautiful, poetic books such as Shadows of Time, which is a kind of coda to her major work, and to write short chapter books for much younger readers that returned to the politically safer ground of earlier novels such as I Own the Racecourse. Although her reputation intimidated reviewers and interviewers, Patricia Wrightson was a private and unassuming woman, who always spoke of her career as an apprenticeship. She answered the endless questions about her work thoughtfully, as if she were being asked for the first time, with the true humility of one who is always learning.
And now, she rides the wind of memory and enters the realm of pure story, like those wonderful, unforgettable spirits - those shadows of time - above the land she loved so much. Loved companion of so many readers, she has given us books for the journey together, some of them now out of print in hard copy and available only in the digital environment that was strange to her but not to her young readers. At the end of The Nargun and the Stars, the great spirit that moves across the landscape comes to rest, apparently defeated and silenced by the human forces of 'development'. But in the concluding line it utters the name of the young protagonist, and Patricia Wrightson says 'the name was only a whisper in the dark'. The old spirit lies there waiting - like the storyteller; like her book.
It's such a privilege to have had Patricia Wrightson's stories on our journey - even moreso for some of us, this wise and strong and gentle woman herself - and to be able to whisper along with her readers across the world, 'Dear friend, fare well.'