Friday, 17 April 2015

The Runaway by Ruth Morris

The Runaway, by 
Ruth Morris
(Published in America as ‘Runaway Girl’)

Updated April 30, 2015

*Contains Spoilers*

I plan to talk about children’s literature here occasionally, so I’ll begin with a book that fulfils all my self-imposed criteria for inclusion in this blog: it’s underrated, obscure, and (more or less) forgotten. It is out of print, though you can still find plenty of old copies on Amazon. It is also remarkably difficult to find any information about the author, Ruth Morris, who does not seem to have written any other books. 
Until I read The Runaway at the age of 10, Australia was just a big blank island on the map, sitting there at the bottom of the world, home to koalas, kangaroos, and a few dusty facts from geography lessons. It had never really occurred to me that real children might live there, children with the courage to walk off alone into the outback to escape their ghastly relatives.

The ‘outback’ itself was a new word and a new idea, opening up a vision of vast spaces and wild emptiness that was, and still is, fascinating for an English child from an intensively cultivated landscape. Other strange words were used by the characters in the story, none of them explained, so you had to guess from the context: swag, bonzer, beaut, billy, crook, tucker, kelpie, galah. 

From what I have been able to discover, the book was first published in 1961 by Michael Joseph. The American edition was retitled ‘Runaway Girl’ by Random House and came out in 1962. In 1964, it appeared in paperback under Penguin’s Peacock imprint. The U.S. edition was illustrated (by Beth Krush), the British edition wasn’t. 

The Penguin Peacock edition

Reading it again for the first time in decades, I was surprised by how closely it fitted my memory of it, and how well it has weathered the test of time. In fact I can’t see any reason why The Runaway should have disappeared from children’s shelves.

The American edition, retitled and with illustrations by Beth Krush

Joanne Mitchell, the narrator, is a 12-year-old orphan who has been living for some years with her aunt and uncle, wealthy socialites in Melbourne. Aunt Valeria, Joanne tells us, “used to tell her friends I was ‘a civilized child, intelligent about prettying up the house’.” But when Aunt Valeria and Uncle Robert take a cruise to Europe, Joanne is cast out of civilization and packed off to stay indefinitely on a sheep station in remote Queensland, with relatives she has never met. She’s OK with this idea, imagining picnics in the bush and exciting drives to visit other sheep stations. 

Her arrival at the isolated backwater is powerfully described. “Red dust lay thickly over the tired wooden station buildings and stirred little eddies underfoot.” She is met by Uncle Fred, “a bent stick of a man with sparse gray hair and the face of someone who is always stubbing his toe on disappointment.” A bleak lunch follows in the station hotel, heavy with uncomfortable silences over slices of cold boiled mutton. 

“ ‘How’s Aunt Lilian?’ ” Joanne asks, trying to make polite conversation. 
“ ‘Good. She’s good.’ The flies settled back on the tablecloth. And in the sugar bowl too.”

But Aunt Lilian is not good, she’s grim. When Fred and Joanne finally arrive at the sheep station after 30 miles by jeep over rough, empty country, it is clear that Aunt Lilian sees Joanne only as a useful pair of hands. The house is spartan, cheerless, scoured clean, the yard a flowerless desert. For the next two months, Joanne is an unpaid servant, helping the neurotic Lilian scrub every inch of the already spotless house, every day. Aunt Lilian is no Marilla Cuthbert – there is no warmth hiding behind her dour exterior.

Life with Aunt Lilian 

Joanne finally snaps after Aunt Lilian sends her to help out at her (Lilian’s) sister’s farm a few miles away. She travels alone, in a horse-drawn buggy, full of hope that the sister will be different. But she finds another bare yard, chained dogs, dirty scattered bones, and a neat, arid, empty house (Lilians sister is out). 
“A solitary petunia raised a defiant but ill-nourished head from the edge of a drain. It must have been a great-great grandchild of the last, long-forgotten cultivated flower that ever bloomed at Four Creeks.”
Turning the reluctant horse, Darkie, around, Joanne heads off into the unknown and the adventure begins. She cuts off her red hair and becomes Joe Casey, judging that a boy will attract less attention than a lone girl wandering and camping in the outback.

The character I remembered most clearly from my childhood reading of this book was the old sheep drover who encounters Joanne (now Joe) on the open road. This memory seemed slightly surprising; gnarled, short-tempered old men have no obvious appeal for 10-year-old female readers. The drover, though, is an original creation, and I was pleased to find him exactly the same, full of laconic anecdotes about the dogs, sheep, bars, and mates of his past, stories that always begin with “Knew a bloke once. . . ”

From a distance, the drover looks like 
a mound of rags with a hat on top”. He is unimpressed by his young companion’s clumsiness in harnessing horses and lighting fires, and contemptuous of her ignorance of the subtle distinctions between types of sheepdog. But he saves Joe/Joanne from starvation, and teaches her how to survive in the bush. 

Camping in the outback with the sheep drover

The drover is not a cosy character. Joanne notes his tough treatment of his “dirty, smelly” dogs, and he blithely abandons her alone at a desolate crossroads when it suits him, with a casual “So long”. He’s a man of the road who doesn’t ask too many questions; he accepts you, but admits no responsibility. He does however give Joanne a puppy, which makes the lonely black nights camping rough in the bush a little more bearable.

The trio – Joanne, the horse, the puppy – continue the road trip, staying for a while with the Bryce family, a struggling mother and her brood of boys (the challenge of pretending to be a boy among real boys is something girl readers might empathise with). This brief respite is curtailed when Mrs Bryce
s husband returns and becomes suspicious of the cuckoo in his nest. 

Joanne’s sense of freedom and her discovery of the natural world is set against her acute loneliness and constant hunger. Every random stranger represents a possible threat: the danger of being discovered and sent back to Aunt Lilian. 

Joanne's lonely nights with Darkie the horse and Abby the puppy 

The happy ending, with Joanne finding a new home, is not delivered before a final burst of tension. She runs away one last time in the middle of the night, terrified that her new family will find out that she is not a boy, and reject her (echoes of Anne of Green Gables).

The conclusion gives the book a satisfying symmetry. Joanne’s story begins with a long-distance train journey westbound into the unknown, and ends with another long, despairing train ride to Brisbane, where she descends among strangers onto the platform, before her new father appears and all is well.

Re-reading the book, I was looking for reasons why it should be out of print, and couldn
t really find any. It is set in the 1950s, but there’s nothing that freezes the story in that era; it feels timeless. There is no racism. If you were hypersensitive, you might object to Mr Mitchell’s implication, on discovering Joanne is not a boy, that girls are naturally disposed to enjoy helping around the house. But the broader message is that girls are the equal of boys in terms of courage and survival in the wilderness. Adults might wonder why Joanne’s adoptive family were not contacted by social services, but this is not likely to worry young readers. The descriptions of Joanne’s puppy sometimes border on the over-sweet, but again, this seems unlikely to irritate the literary sensibilities of children. 

As a character, Joanne has an everygirl quality, making her easy to identify with. She has no exceptional talents or quirks, but is simply an affectionate, observant child in need of a home. She doesn
t seek adventure, but is forced to confront it. The story perhaps has more appeal for children outside Australia, because they are most likely to enjoy the exploration of an unknown territory and culture. Joanne is 12, but I would suggest a slightly younger readership (9 to 11), given the greater sophistication of children in 2015.

So who is, or was, Ruth Morris? The only information I could find initially came from the website Jane Badger Books, which says that she was born in 1926 in Queenscliff, Melbourne, Victoria, the daughter of the garrison commander at Port Phillip, Victoria, and was educated at Melbourne University. She taught for a while, then spent two years in England working on farms and for people with disabilities, before returning to Australia. The Runaway was apparently based on a journey she made through Queensland in an old Ford in 1956. 

This biographical information was confirmed by Dr Catriona Mills, senior researcher at AustLit, the Australian literature database. She said that they had no record of any publications other than The Runaway. 

Ruth Morris in 1961, when The Runaway was published. From the Australian Women's Weekly. 

Catriona Mills did however unearth three newspaper articles about the publication of the book. The first, in the Australian Women's Weekly, dated November 8, 1961, says that Ruth’s trip around Queensland lasted six months, was undertaken alone apart from her cattle dog, Cappy. “I never would have done it without him,” she said.

The article says that she married a Geoffrey Webb of Culcairn, New South Wales, after her trip, and, mysteriously, that she had finished another book about two youngsters’ adventures in the foothills of the Baw Baws.”  But I could find no record of this book. Nor did the the Peacock edition of The Runaway include one of those useful ‘about the author’ sections that all Puffin books used to have.
It is surprising if Morris did not publish again, because The Runaway is the work of someone who enjoys writing and does it with conviction.

If anyone reading this knows anything more about Ruth Morris (not to be confused with the Canadian prison reformer of the same name, born in 1933), or would like to share anything else about The Runaway, please feel free to comment below. 

© Josephine Gardiner 2015 

A galah (Eolophus roseicapillus). Joanne talks about seeing flocks of these pink birds against the pale blue skies of Queensland.  Photo: David Cook/Wikimedia Commons

Many thanks to Jane Badger Books, and to Dr Catriona Mills of AustLit, the Australian literature database, for the biographical information and links to newspapers. 

Links to articles from the National Library of Australia's Trove digitisation project: Australian Women's Weekly 1961, 1962; and The Canberra Times, 1962


  1. Thanks for reminding me of this book. I remember reading it too, many years' ago and it should be republished, for sure.

    1. Thank you very much for commenting. Yes, I agree The Runaway's appeal is pretty timeless and children would enjoy it today. Also, people who read it as children always seem to remember it, which is an indication of quality I think.

  2. I read this book when I was about 10 and I've been looking for it on and off for a few years, I'm 38 now. I'm Australian and as a kid spent some school holidays on a sheep station so I could visualise the environment, which is one of the reasons I liked this book.

    1. Thank you very much for commenting.

      The book is out of print, but there are lots of second-hand copies available if you go to Amazon UK and type in 'Ruth Morris The Runaway'. I got mine for a couple of pounds and you can choose between the British or American editions.
      Interestingly, I checked Amazon Australia and there are none there, which seems the wrong way round somehow.

      I'm glad you liked the book as well. I think I liked it for a different reason - because the setting seemed so strange to me. I've only read one other book set on a sheep station, and that was The Thorn Birds, which was rather different (!)

      If you ever hear anything in Australia about what happened to Ruth Morris, do let me know...

  3. I read this book when I was about 10 and I've been looking for it on and off for a few years, I'm 38 now. I'm Australian and as a kid spent some school holidays on a sheep station so I could visualise the environment, which is one of the reasons I liked this book.

    1. Please see my reply to your first version...

  4. This is a great review: very insightful. I just finished reading The Runaway and was delighted with it. I had hoped to find more books by Ruth Morris, but alas. As you write, I cannot see any reason why it should have disappeared from the childrens' shelves. I like the way the book opens with a reflection taken from a positive place in Joanne's life, giving the reader a strong message that this book is about hope, and through that, resilience.

  5. I have been looking for this book for several years. I read it in elementary school and it left a very lasting impression. Thankfully found an old copy and look forward to rereading it as soon as it arrives.

  6. This has always been one of my favorite books, ever since I first read it when I was 10. Thank you for such a thorough and well-researched review. I've always wondered if there were more books by the same author. Sad to learn there are not, but Ruth Morris did a fine job of crafting an unforgettable tale of survival in the one book she did write. As a child I was especially impressed with Joanne's growth as a character from a timid, clueless wanderer to a competent traveler of the Outback. Strong female characters were few and far between back when I first read Runaway Girl. I hope this book will be reissued some day. I believe today's girls will enjoy it every bit as much as I did.

  7. I was born in 1952 in the UK, so I have the Peacock edition PK 26 which cost 3/6 (three shillings and six pence, 3.5 out of 20 shillings =one pound) at the time. It says "First published by Michael Joseph 1961 Published in Penguin Books 1964". This book is one of the few I have kept all my life, so I must have enjoyed it when I was 12 or 13, although I have no recollection of my first reading. As I recall, Peacock Books was introduced in around 1960 as a range of titles for young teenagers and was aimed at those who were outgrowing the children's range Puffin Books and were not yet ready for the adult Penguin Books. The other three Peacock books I kept are PK 31 Jim Corbett : Man-Eaters of Kumaon, PK 12 James Ramsey Ullmann : Banner in the Sky and PK 19 Eric Williams: Great Escape Stories - these appeal possibly more to boys whereas I would say that The Runaway is aimed at girls.
    Thank you for this review which I agree with whole-heartedly. What struck me now was the way in which in 1950s Australia a young girl/boy could "disappear" from society for weeks and months due to the lack of modern communication plus the strikingly "careless" attitude of most of the adults involved! Possibly partly due to poetic licence, as otherwise the plot would not have worked as well! The worldly guardians did not give Joanne any way of contacting them during their cruise which was perhaps not entirely likely?