MOON DARK; By Patricia Wrightson; Illustrated by Noela Young; Macmillan Publishing Co. McElderry Books, 1988; 169 pages; $13.95.
For eons man has told stories revolving around his surroundings; the tales of heroic feats, musings about worldly phenomena. Such legends came to be printed as "How the Leopard Got His Spots" and "The People Could Fly."Great storytellers continue to spin webs of fantasy through ballad, tale and rhyme. One such is Patricia Wrightson, winner of the 1986 Hans Christian Andersen Award for her total body of writing.
"Moon Dark" is set in the scrub and forest lands of Australia. Mort and the dog Blue eke out a bare existence of fish, fruit and vegetables left by the creatures of the bush who have always inhabited and taken for themselves.
Juxtaposed throughout are the narratives of man to man (Mort to the Ranger) and animal to animal. The dog Blue and Mort, too, have a link for communicating: "a man'd think he knew every word you said . . . most people don't have a clue how an animal's talking to them and understanding them . . . Blue can read it all right. . . ."
The transition from fiction to fantasy is as smooth as the Moon, who intervenes in the war between bush rats and bandicoots as they struggle for survival.
"Dark Moon" has many qualities of the ancient myth; for example, expressing nature's rhythms and recountings. As the flying foxes move into the new territory, the bush rats and bandicoots must compete for food. The Moon, Keeting, sums up: "This is not their country. . . . No law orders bush rats and wallabies to starve so that flying foxes may eat. They need a new country." He then calls for a resolution: "I cannot take away the Red Dog. For that is the balance and the law. I cannot take away the men, for they are needed. They must find the law and the balance for themselves. But it may be that, with a little help, I can take away the flying foxes."
The strategy is for Keeting to take the foxes away on bamboo shoots moved by the bush rats and bandicoots from river bank to hill top. To achieve this glorious feat means that man - no one in their homes - must see the phenomenon. It is through a planned and concerted action of all the wildlife (there's not room for competition or rivalry here!) to keep humans awake for two nights, so they'll be in deep slumber on the third, when Brother Moon carries the bamboo shoots - and the flying foxes - away. Working together the Bandicoot War is forgotten.
The plot line is complex, demanding a reader to suspend disbelief, to reach beyond a notion of animals who do human-like things into a message of environmental concern; what happens when the remarkable balance of nature is upset? "Clear up the scrub for three or four houses and you've lost a lot of habitat. A lot of things have to shift and displace other things. It goes haywire till they get the balance right again. . . ."
Most intriguing is Wrightson's ability to mesh the animal fantasy with reality. The Ranger is an integral part of that shift: "The Ranger . . . did not look for mysteries but he knew his charges. . . . He did not know that once, a very long time ago, they had all been men; and yet he knew without thinking about it that were almost men. So now - with the frogs singing again for no reason, the big hoppers hurrying about instead of grazing, the bandicoots and other small ones missing altogether - he did not pretend to himself that all was normal; he knew something was going on. . . ."
Never losing their "animalness," each one from from smallest skink to the kangaroo is shown as an individual as well as part of a unit of the "balance and the law."
The story is told primarily through description of the settings and the actions of the dog Blue. At times they are almost related since the blue heeler ". . . was bred from the wild dingo, and it is said that in the lonely back-country of Australia the dingo strain is kept alive. . . ." His aboriginal lineage causes him to be caught in the quietness of the land: ". . . A smell of moss and rotting leaves from the creek below, the mist flowing as though the moon was caught in it, and a great quiet with a sense of waiting. . . ," when stars tangle with the treetops or the tension when ". . . time was stretched like a bow. . . ."
The plot has a level of suspense (will the bush rats and bandicoots be able to accomplish the arduous test of transporting the bamboo shoots?), humor as the animals cause two sleepless nights ("their shrill shrieks made the people in the houses scowl and groan and turn up the volume of the television. . ."), and a level of mystery that speaks to many levels.
"Moon Dark" is a compelling novel that will not be easily forgotten.
Other books by Patricia Wrightson include "The Ice Is Coming," "The Dark Bright Water," "Journey Behind the Wind," "A Little Fear" and "The Nargun and the Stars."