Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky’s new novel, The Golden Day, tells the story of a mysterious disappearance in 1960s Sydney. In a Behind the Book essay, Dubosarsky writes about her own experiences as a schoolgirl, and how they inspired this haunting coming-of-age story.
The Golden Day is the story of a group of 9-year-old schoolgirls whose teacher takes them on a trip to the Botanic Gardens on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Sydney, Australia, in 1967. When they venture inside a cave to see some Aboriginal rock art, someone goes missing. But it’s not one of the children—it’s their teacher, Miss Renshaw, who never comes out of the darkness of the cave. The rest of the book is the unfolding of events that take place after Miss Renshaw’s mysterious disappearance, told from the perspective of the 11 little girls.
While the book is not a memoir—more a mixture of memory, interpretation and invention—I did attend a school like the one in The Golden Day, an all-girls’ school founded in the late 19th century with an idealistic commitment to female education. The school was in an inner-city area of Sydney known as Kings Cross, once famed for harbourside mansions and grand Victorian terraces, but which by the late 1960s had evolved into a kind of counter-culture haven, a centre of crime, corruption, poverty, prostitution, squatters, artists, drugs, anti-Vietnam War protests and political controversy. In Australia the implications of the 1960s came a little later than in the U.S., but by 1967 all the familiar elements were well in place.
Typically we girls got off the bus at Taylor Square, crossed over to the Court House in our blue uniforms and blue bags, and made our way down rubbish-strewn Forbes Street, past the old gaol, the Christian Science Reading Room and the various sleepy or otherwise semi-conscious inhabitants of derelict houses lying on the steps in the morning sun, until we reached the safety of the school grounds and slipped inside the green gate and bang! it closed behind us. The school was housed in a collection of British colonial and modern buildings and still had a certain esoteric atmosphere of the past, a hidden colony of girls walled in from the growing tumult and change of the outside world. Yet of course there was no protection, not really. The world was ready to eat these children up, and only some of them were ready to cope with it. A number of the girls I was at school with were eaten up by the brave new world, one way or the other.
Like most pupils I started there when I was 12. The attached elementary school in those days was tiny and nothing like the big co-ed state school I’d come from. I was fascinated by this handful of little elementary school girls trailing around after their teacher, with their long white socks and their shiny hair tied up in equally shiny blue and white ribbons. They looked so brave and anxious! And what a strange experience of school! The seed of The Golden Day began to grow then, at least in my unconscious mind.
I had also never seen so many elderly women in my life. Some of these faithful and committed teachers had been there since World War Two and one even claimed to remember wearing a mask to school during the Spanish Flu. My memory of these older women, though, is that they were unhappy to the point of bitter anger—with the changing world, the shift of values and the loss of authority. There was a palpable generational conflict with the younger teachers and also an assumed conflict with the students, marked by an atmosphere of distrust and dislike, although as children we were simply in the middle of it and had no idea what it was all about.
I drew on all of this in writing The Golden Day. It felt as though I’d been waiting a long time to write about it. As I said, it’s not a memoir, the characters are not real people, the events did not take place. Perhaps it’s best described as a creatively re-imagined version of my own schooldays, a response to the experience, like a dream 30 years afterward. Certainly none of my teachers disappeared, although you felt at any moment some of the younger ones might just do so, if they got a better offer! The adult world, after all, was marked by disturbing disappearances—even our prime minister disappeared while surfing at the beach in 1967, never to be seen again. Disappearance, evanescence, impermanence. This is what, to me, signified that period and what I found myself writing about.
As a teenager in 1976 I saw the iconic Australian film Picnic At Hanging Rock in which a group of schoolgirls disappear in the bush in 1900. Like many people, I have never forgotten its ominous and beautiful images. In The Golden Day I set out deliberately to write a modern version of the story of the film, but in an urban setting—and in reverse. Because instead of disappearing schoolgirls, in The Golden Day it is the teacher, the revered authority figure, who vanishes into nothing, leaving the frightened and wondering children behind to work it out for themselves.