Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman (aka Kim Wilkins) is told on a dual timeline, one following ballerina Emma Blaxland-Hunter in 2009 and the other following Emma’s grandmother Beattie Blaxland as a young woman in the 1920s. The story of grandmother Beattie involves her travelling from Glasgow to live in Australia. The story of granddaughter Emma involves her travelling to Australia to recuperate after injuring herself in a fall, only to find she has inherited her grandmother’s Tasmanian property Wildflower Hill.
In this post, the focus will be on the opening passage of Wildflower Hill – from the first chapter, which features Emma as a child and Beattie as a grandmother before the novel is split into the dual timelines of each as a young woman – and how the characters and their story are introduced.
The girl danced.
Right leg, pas de chat. Right leg, petit jete.
‘Emma, your grandmother asked you a question.’
‘Hmm?’ Left leg, pas de chat. Left leg, petit jete. On and on across the parquetry floor, from one sunbeam to the next. She loved Grandma’s house, especially the music room, where the sun patterned through the gauzy curtains, and there was enough space to dance and dance.
‘Emma, I said-’
‘Leave her be, dear’ Grandma replied in her quiet musical voice.
‘I’m enjoying watching her dance.’
Right leg, pas de chat…
‘If she practised her manners as regularly as she practised her dancing, she wouldn’t have been booted out of schools already.’
Right leg, petit jete…
Grandma chuckled. ‘She’s only eleven. Plenty of time to learn manners when she’s older. And you do insist on putting her in those uppity schools.’
In the first line, a character is introduced through a description of the character engaged in an action: “The girl danced.”
In the second line, the character is further introduced through a direct report of her thought: “Right leg, pas de chat. Right leg, petit jete.” A reader can infer from this that she is concentrating on her dance moves.
In the third line, a second character is introduced through her speech: ‘Emma, your grandmother asked you a question.’ This character is confirmed to be Emma’s mother, in the next excerpt. A third character, Emma’s grandmother, is also introduced. This line of speech also provides further clues about the girl from the first sentence: her name is Emma, she has a living grandmother, her grandmother asked her a question. It also provides clues about the character who spoke: that character felt the need to inform Emma that her grandmother asked her a question, suggesting Emma may not have heard, perhaps because she was focused on her dancing.
The fourth line begins with a new piece of speech: “’Huh?’” A reader can infer from the context that this is Emma, the dancing girl, speaking. This suggests that she had not heard her grandmother’s question, rather than deliberately ignored it, for example.
The fourth line continues: “On and on across the parquetry floor, from one sunbeam to the next. She loved Grandma’s house, especially the music room, where the sun patterned through the gauzy curtains, and there was enough space to dance and dance.” The setting has been introduced here with a description of the physical surroundings of the characters: “the parquetry floor”, the music room with sunbeams “patterned through the gauzy curtains, and there was enough space to dance and dance”. Emma’s attitude towards her grandmother’s house is reported: “She loved Grandma’s house, especially the music room…” More clues regarding possible details about the characters can be inferred – or at least considered – from the description of their surroundings, such as considering who Emma’s grandparents are to be able to own a large music room. The description of the characters’ surrounding are intermingled with the action as descriptive phrases.
Character relationships and potential conflict between characters
From the opening excerpt of Wildflower Hill, a reader can conceive of character relationships and how conflict could potentially arise in the story based on these relationships between charcters: Emma is dedicated to dancing, Emma’s grandmother sympathises with her, Emma’s mother is concerned about Emma sacrificing her manners for her dedication to dancing, and Emma’s grandmother does not share the same level of concern about Emma’s manners and seems to disapprove of Emma’s mother putting Emma in “uppity schools”.
Left leg, pas de chat… ‘No, no, no!’ Emma stamped her foot. Deep breath. Start again. Left leg, pas de chat. Left leg, petit jete… She became aware of the silence in the room, and glanced up, expecting to find herself alone. But Grandma was still there, on a deep couch beside the grand piano, watching her. Emma shook herself, pulled her spine very upright and gazed back. Above Grandma’s head hung a large painting of a gum tree at sunset: Grandma’s favourite painting. Emma didn’t really understand how anyone could be so interested in a tree, but she liked it because Grandma liked it.
‘I thought you’d gone,’ Emma said at last.
‘No I’ve been watching you. Your mother left ten minutes ago. I think she’s with Grandpa in the garden.’ Grandma smiled. ‘You certainly love your dancing, don’t you?’
Emma could only nod. She hadn’t learned a word yet to describe how she felt about dancing. It wasn’t love, it was something bigger and much weightier.
In the second excerpt, the same methods as for the first excerpt have been used, as well as summary of thought. The passage of time implied in the story could also be considered as an important aspect of the second excerpt.
Summary of thought
In the second line, Emma’s thought is reported in summary, not reported directly as in the first excerpt (although “She loved Grandma’s house…” from the first excerpt could also be considered a summary of Emma’s thought): “She became aware of the silence in the room, and glanced up, expecting to find herself alone.
Passage of time
Around ten minutes of story time has passed between the beginning and the end of the first paragraph in the above excerpt (if what Emma’s grandmother says to her is accurate).
If you didn’t get the impression that ten minutes had passed, until you read Emma’s grandmother say “Your mother left ten minutes ago.”, then this would need to be explained for it to make sense. The passing of ten minutes when it didn’t seem that way could be explained by supposing that the Emma’s thoughts and experiences are being told and that Emma lost track of time while dancing.
Of course, there are other options like treating Wildflower Hill as an abstract collection of sentences with no relation to a fictional story world populated by realistic characters, but then what any of it means or relates to would be anyone’s guess and up to very arbitrary judgments.
Character relationships and potential for conflict between characters
Emma’s grandmother enjoyed Emma’s company despite Emma’s inattention to her, Emma’s mother lost interest in Emma’s dancing quickly while Emma’s grandmother stayed watching for ten minutes, Emma likes her grandmother, and Emma is very passionate about dancing.
As more details about the characters and their relationships with one another are built up, along with other details such as those related to setting, a reader can develop a fuller conception of the characters, the characters’ circumstances and potential developments to come in the story.
Other aspects take on more significance once a fuller conception of the story has been established (or in the context of what is hinted at in the blurb about the dual storylines to come), such as the rapport between Emma and her grandmother Beattie and the impact that will have on Emma’s later life, and Beattie’s attachment to the painting of a gum tree.
You can read the following excerpt with the ideas mentioned above, and whatever ideas you may have developed yourself, in mind to consolidate your ideas.
Grandma patted the couch next to her. ‘Sit for a minute. Even a prima ballerina needs to rest.’
Emma had to admit that her calves were aching, but she didn’t mind. She longed for aching muscles and bleeding toes. They told her she was getting better. Still, Grandma was very kind to watch her all thistime, so she crossed the room and sat. Somewhere deep in the house, music played: an old big band song that Grandpa liked. Emma preferred Grandma to Grandpa infinitely. Grandpa went on and on, especially about his garden. Emma knew her grandma and grandpa were important people with a lot of money, but she cared very little about what it is they did or had done. Grandma was fun and Grandpa was a bore, and that was that.
‘Tell me about your dancing,’ Grandma said, taking Emma’s slight hand in her soft fingers. ‘You’re going to be a ballerina?’
Emma nodded. ‘Mum says hardly anyone is a ballerina, and I should do something else just in case. But then there wouldn’t be enough time to dance.’
‘Well, I’ve known your mother all her life.’ Here Grandma smiled, crinkling the corners of her blue eyes. ‘And she’s not always right.’
Emma laughed, feeling deliciously naughty.
‘You must work hard, though,’ Grandma said.
More on Kim Wilkins and her fiction can be found at http://fantasticthoughts.wordpress.com and a page on her fiction under the name Kimberley Freeman is at http://fantasticthoughts.wordpress.com/about.
The Australian Literature Review