Children's writer (1922-2003)

A wry chronicler of society's foibles

by Michael Pollak and Margaret MacNabb
Sydney Morning Herald, 29 November 2003

Hesba Brinsmead, who died this week in the NSW North Coast town of Murwillumbah after a long illness, was one of Australia's most important writers for children and young adults. Throughout her 81 years, she wrote on a wide variety of subjects, and in her 24 books pushed the boundaries of the children's genre.

Brinsmead's most famous book remains her first, Pastures of the Blue Crane, published in 1964. This novel, set in the Tweed district, won the Children's Book of the Year Award and the Mary Gilmore Award, and achieved an international reputation. She also won a Children's Book of the Year Award for her landmark Longtime Passing (1971), the first of a semi-autobiographical trilogy set in the Blue Mountains.

Pastures of the Blue Crane was also the source of one of the first mini-series on ABC television. It is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl, Ryl Merewether. Ryl is all alone in the world -- or so she thinks -- when she suddenly inherits a rundown shack in northern NSW, which comes complete with a crusty old grandfather and some other surprising relatives she didn't know about. In this little adventure story, Brinsmead tackles many big issues, including the irresponsible property development ruining the pristine Tweed coastline, and the casual racism, sexism and narrow-minded conformity of Australian society.

Brinsmead was a generation ahead of her time as an environmentalist, being an early campaigner for Lake Pedder and the Franklin. She led the way as a sensitive and wry commentator on Australian society, a chronicler of pioneering days, a keen and witty observer of family life, and was among the first authors to tackle indigenous issues. She was a valiant writer, who overcame adversities that would have stumped a lesser person.

Hesba Fay Hungerford was born in the tiny Blue Mountains settlement of Berambing in what was then the remotest of wildernesses. All her life, Hesba was known as "Pixie" to her friends and family. The nickname suited her spritely personality, her will-o'-the-wisp frame and her sparkling demeanour.

The distant fifth of five children, she had an often lonely childhood. She was not sent to school until she was well into her teens, and by then she was already doing paid work at her father's sawmill. But the family were great readers, and she decided when she was young to become a writer. This was a dream that was with her always but was not fulfilled until she was a Melbourne housewife in her 40s and the mother of two sons.

From her childhood in the mountains came the Longtime stories. In these books, she writes about her unusual home life - her parents, failed missionaries, were ill-matched, and her father struggled with depression all his life. The stories are very much about how children cope with the vagaries and broken dreams of the adults in their lives. These books can be enjoyed by children as adventure stories, and by adults as a caustic exploration of family life, not unlike the work of such acerbic wits as Nancy Mitford.

The Longtime series tells of the long, and often tragic, history of the mountains - the convict labourers, the struggles of the first settlers - and, of course, about their long Aboriginal past. Brinsmead, years before such issues were intelligently addressed, tells about the Aboriginal heritage of the mountains such as sacred sites, spiritual beliefs and a world view so different from that of the white settlers who displaced them.

Brinsmead spent the first few years of her married life in rural Victoria. During the darkest days of World War II, she and her husband Reg set up their first home at Wycheproof.

After the war, the couple moved to Nunawading, which at the time was a semi-rural area of outer-eastern Melbourne. As she settled into the role of mother to her sons, Ken and Bernie, and helping Reg to run his weed-spraying business, she decided it was time to fulfil her childhood ambition. She mustered every spare moment she could to jot down thoughts. She became, as she later put it, "one of those people who is always scribbling - like those women who are always knitting, I always had a notebook on my lap". She felt her creativity was enhanced by movement, so she always wrote the first draft of her books on the run. She worked out plots in coffee shops, in doctors' waiting rooms, or at the beach.

In 1975, after having travelled to northern NSW on many occasions, she and her husband moved to the Tweed coast, settling in a gracious Queenslander in Terranora. From the veranda of the sprawling property, there were panoramic views of the Gold Coast to the north and to Mount Warning near Nimbin to the south. These vistas were breathtakingly beautiful yet Brinsmead became increasingly concerned by the rampant housing developments, in Terranora and beyond, which she felt were destroying a tranquil way of life.

The titanic environmental struggles in Tasmania are the cornerstone for much of Brinsmead's work. These "Tasmanian" books began in 1965 with the novel Season of the Briar, which depicts weed sprayers causing havoc through the countryside. This was the first of several stories set in a state which she got to know intimately, thanks to her brother-in-law, Ron Brown, a long-serving independent state MP who campaigned tirelessly for conservation.

In 1972 came Echo in the Wilderness, set on Lake Pedder on the eve of its destruction. Much of her writing, and her life, was consumed by her need to do something about the environmental vandalism in Tasmania, and in her 1983 book, I Will Not Say the Day is Done, she brought to life all the personalities involved in the Pedder struggle. (This humble book has a foreword by a then equally humble environmental activist named Bob Brown of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society.)

One of Brinsmead's most ambitious novels was The Ballad of Benny Perhaps (1977). This story of a young drifter is set in an unspecified outback mining town and deals with youth's hopelessness, mandatory sentencing, racial prejudice, alcoholism and the grinding despair that so often prevails among society's rejects. It's a story about human folly and human dreams, and it is increasingly recognised as one of the lost masterpieces of Australian literature.

Brinsmead suffered from osteoporosis for most of her adult life, and was often in great pain. She finally stopped writing in the late 1980s because it became impossible for her to sit at a typewriter. Just over two years ago, because of her poor health and frailty, and after long resistance, she finally had to leave her Terranora house and move to a serviced apartment at a retirement village at Murwillumbah.

She is survived by her ex-husband Reg, who remained a close friend when they finally divorced after many years spent living cheerfully separate lives, her sons Bernie and Ken, her grandchildren Regina, Faye, Gabrielle and Simon and great-granddaughter Eleanor Rose.

Michael Pollak and Margaret MacNabb are the authors of the biography Days Never Done: The Life and Work of Hesba Fay Brinsmead (Unity Press, 2002).

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Sydney Morning Herald