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Gillian (Margaret) Rubinstein (1942-) - Sidelights

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Australian author Gillian Rubinstein is well known for her science-fiction and fantasy stories in which young people learn through fantastic, often otherworldly experiences about the importance of community and shared responsibility. Her many works for children and young adults focus principally on family and peer relationships, reflecting the author's belief that "the most pain and the most pleasure and the most intense emotions" reside within the family. Rubinstein's protagonists learn to grapple with strong emotions—including fear, love, and hate—and feelings of insecurity in a manner that is considered forthright, positive, and constructive. In books such as Space Demons Beyond the Labyrinth, and Galax-Arena, as well as the highly acclaimed "Tales of the Otori" series she has published under the pseudonym Lian Hearn, Rubinstein investigates the boundaries between childhood and adulthood as well as between imagination and reality. "Her tightly plotted narratives move seamlessly from reality to fantasy," Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers contributor Agnes Nieuwenhuizen stated, "and, while they incorporate tough issues, they do so in ways that seem to both entertain and empower readers."

Much of the material Rubinstein draws on comes from her own life. She was born in Potten End, near Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire, England, during World War II. "My husband says that after I was born, things started looking up for the Allies," the author once wrote. "But it must have been an anxious time for my parents, starting a family. My father, as a research chemist, was considered to be on essential war work, so he stayed at home throughout the war. The only major excitement was when his laboratory was bombed by mistake by a German plane dropping its bombs too late and missing London." "As a child," she continued, "I was always in some dramatic state or other, either deliriously happy or desperately miserable. I cried easily and fell into terrible rages. My parents described me as exasperating, or more kindly, as highly strung."

Rubinstein describes her own family life as uneasy. Her parents were not well matched, and they had many personality conflicts. Her father was a scholar who had entered Oxford University on scholarships and earned his Ph.D. there. He also, Rubinstein once revealed, had a serious drinking problem. Her mother, on the other hand, was a very social woman, partly handicapped by a childhood bout of osteomyelitis. "She had to undergo many painful operations and spend long periods in hospital, and had to wear a leg brace. She was left with a deep scar and ongoing arthritis," the author explained. "But her spirits were undamaged. She was a very attractive woman who loved company and parties. She was also strong-willed and sharp-tongued....With only bridge and charity work for outlets, she had too much energy to be a comfortable person to live with. I spent a lot of time as a child studying her to find out what sort of mood she was in."

Gillian and her sister, Jocelyn, found additional support outside their immediate family. Lavendar Helen Hatt-Cook, her husband John, and her two children, Mark and Pippa, became close family friends. The two families originally met during World War II, and formed a close attachment. "When the war ended and we started going away on summer holidays," Rubinstein once explained, "we always went with the Hatt-Cooks, to Devon, Cornwall or Guernsey in the Channel Islands. Later, when my mother and my stepfather went to live in Nigeria, my sister and I made our home with the Hatt-Cooks, and they became like a foster family to us. I drew on this situation for some of the feelings Victoria has in Beyond the Labyrinth."

The same summer holidays supplied memories later recalled by Rubinstein in her novel At Ardilla. Similar childhood recollections of English village life also inspired her picture book Mr. Plunkett's Pool. After Rubinstein's parents divorced in the mid-1950s, Rubinstein and her sister stayed at boarding school in England, dividing their holidays between visiting their mother in Africa and staying with the Hatt-Cooks.

Rubinstein eventually entered Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, intending to study Spanish and French. At Oxford she was introduced to drama and began to work with the Worcester College Players and the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) as a props person and stage manager, also writing her first play. After graduation, she turned to a succession of jobs, and during the early 1970s, she returned to school to earn her teaching certificate. In 1973 she married Philip Rubinstein and the couple relocated to Australia, settling first in Sydney and finally in Adelaide.

Rubinstein credits her three children for influencing her decision to become an author of children's and young adult fiction, recalling to Something about the Author (SATA) that her son's lack of interest was the ultimate motivator. "There were simply no books around that he thought looked interesting. I thought I could write something that would appeal to him and in 1985 I gave myself three months to see if I could write a novel. At the end of three months I had a manuscript of 42,000 words—the first version of Space Demons. The first publisher I sent it to rejected it, but the second, Omnibus Books, said they would be interested in it if I could rewrite it. I went through two more versions before it was accepted—and it taught me the important lesson that books aren't written, they are rewritten!"

Space Demons has been praised for its exploration of hatred and fear, and for the way its four young characters—Andrew, Ben, Mario, and Elaine—react to and deal with those emotions. The novel opens with Andrew Hayford, the neglected son of well-to-do parents, receiving a new computer game. Although the game has no instruction manual, Andrew guesses that its object is to destroy video demons with a laser gun. "What he discovers later," wrote Susan Rogers in School Library Journal, "is that the game feeds on the preexisting alienation and hostility of its players in order to pull them into the reality level." Gradually Andrew and his companions are sucked into the reality of the "Space Demons" game, and it is only after they learn to overcome their hostility and work together that they manage to escape from the game's alternate reality. A sequel, Skymaze, takes the four young people into an alternate reality where they are forced to confront their weaknesses, prejudices, and fears.

"Each book," wrote John Foster in Children's Literature in Education, "illustrates the power of a negative emotion, hate in the former and fear in the latter." "Rubinstein convincingly melds the two worlds of fantasy and reality, revealing how inner and outer selves connect," wrote Cathi Dunn MacRae in a Wilson Library Bulletin review of Skymaze. "Her characters' authentic conflicts seem intense enough to set the maze in motion. Games are explored on several levels, from power struggles . . . to dance exercises probing inner fears."

Rubinstein uses another game motif to probe fears, racism, and sexism in Beyond the Labyrinth. In this story fourteen-year-old Brenton Trethewan "is sharply different from his brothers and sister," stated Horn Book reviewer Ann A. Flowers, "and has become the outsider, the scapegoat, in his heedless, noisy, materialistic family." Vicky, a younger girl, is a visitor; she has been sent to board with the Trethewans while her parents work in Africa. Brenton expresses his alienation through devotion to a "Dungeons and Dragons"-like role-playing game called Labyrinth of Dead Ends. "He bases all his decisions on the fall of the dice that he always carries with him," Flowers explained, "and plays 'Choose Your Own Adventure' games constantly." Trouble arises when Vicky and Brenton discover Cal, an alien anthropologist, on a nearby beach. "What is interesting," declared Foster, "is that Cal is both female and black, factors that affect others' reactions to her. Through this ploy, Rubinstein demonstrates the racism and sexism which underlie much of Australian society." When Cal falls ill with a viral infection, Brenton and Vicky realize that they must return her to her home planet. In a finish reminiscent of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books Brenton loves, Rubinstein confronts the reader with alternative endings that describe different futures for each of her characters.

Beyond the Labyrinth attracted critical attention for its use of language as well as for its theme. Unlike her previous science fiction, in this novel the author moves the action backward and forward in time, mixing flashbacks with sections set in the present, everything written in present tense. The book also employs controversial language, causing many libraries refused to shelve the book. Despite this critical uproar, all three of Rubinstein's early novels have remained popular with young-adult audiences, and Space Demons has also been dramatized and performed onstage throughout Australia since 1989.

Gaming, in the form of sports, again becomes an issue in Galax-Arena. Rubinstein's psychological thriller tells the story of three young siblings, Peter, Joella, and Liane, who are kidnapped and taken by spaceship to the planet Vexa. Hythe, their trainer, begins preparing them for a life in the arena, where they will perform dangerous gymnastics for the amusement of native Vexans. "Peter soon shows unrivaled gymnastic skills," explained Flowers in her Horn Book review of the novel, while "Liane somehow turns her toy puppet, Bro Rabbit, into a menacing prophet of things to come." Joella, meanwhile, has little talent for gymnastics; she is placed in a tank and destined to become a sort of pet for the Vexans. According to Chris Sherman in an enthusiastic review of the novel for Booklist, "this situation . . . allows her to learn the truth about her captivity and acquire the courage and means to escape." Flowers also praised Galax-Arena, comparing it to William Golding's classic novel Lord of the Flies.

Alienation takes a fantastic twist in Foxspell, which finds preteen Tod dealing with a troubled home life. Tod's father has deserted the family, forcing his mother to move in with her own mother in order to save money. Facing extreme pressure to join a local teenage gang, Todd finds an escape by spending time observing the wildlife in a local quarry. "Eventually," explained Steven Engelfried in School Library Journal, "he meets a spirit fox that allows him to transform into an animal himself." With that offer also comes the promise of immortality if Tod willingly transforms into a fox forever. Although Tod enjoys life as a fox, his human self is shaken by the animal violence that the shape unleashes in him; meanwhile, as a human he begins to embrace the excitement and danger of gang life. "The harrowing climax takes place when one of his friends is accidentally killed during a gang escapade," declared Flowers in Horn Book, adding that Rubinstein's conclusion "leaves the reader in doubt as to whether Tod can resolve the tension between a natural and a human life." Five Owls contributor Christine Heppermann asserted that in Foxspell the author "does not depict one mode of existence as better than the other. Hers is more a plea for sympathy between species."

For Under the Cat's Eye: A Tale of Morph and Mystery Rubinstein drew upon her memories of Oxenhouse, a stately manor in Kent where she once worked as a cook. In the novel, Jai Kala is sent to Nexhoath, a boarding school in Australia, where he quickly realizes that something is not right with regard to the headmaster, Mr. Drake, Kitty, the housekeeper, and Roughly, the handyman. Jai's two new friends, Hugo and Seal, soon share with him their belief that Mr. Drake is some kind of spiritual vampire from another world. As it turns out, "Drake is using technology from . . . [a] parallel world to suck the souls from individuals and extend his own life," explained Janice M. Del Negro in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Kitty and Roughly are discovered to be shapechangers—a cat and a dog, respectively—from a parallel world who are looking for their world's destined ruler and believe they have found him in Jai. Eventually, Jai and Seal take on the difficult tasks of helping Kitty and Roughly find their true sovereign, rescuing Hugo who has become one of Drake's victims, and stopping Drake before everyone at Nexhoath is consumed by his evil power. "Rubinstein," asserted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "employs the devices of classic fantasy with intelligence and authority," while Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Susan Dunn enthused that with "mistaken identity, time travel, mystery, fantasy, and an animal story all rolled into one—this book has something for everyone."

In 2002 Rubinstein did some shapeshifting of her own, creating the pen name Lian Hearn and publishing the first volume of her "Tales of the Otori" trilogy. Inspired by the author's long interest in Japan and a visit she took to that country in 1999, she created a saga taking place in feudal Japan, 500 years in the past.

In Across the Nightingale Floor she introduces sixteen-year-old Takeo, a boy who avoids the deadly fate of his fellow villagers because he loves walking in the hills around Dairyo. Because a secret society known as The Hidden has taken hold in the village, Dairyo's vicious leader Iida Sadamu sends his soldiers and kills everyone in sight. Saved by the sword-wielding Shigeru, member of a rival clan called the Otori, Takeo is adopted by Shigeru's people and comes to learn about his own magical birthright, which gives him ninja-like abilities.

In Grass for His Pillow Takeo continues to train as an assassin despite his desire to do otherwise. Meanwhile, a young princess named Kaede Shirakawa has fallen in love with the young swordsman, but puts her lovesick feelings aside and replaces them with a determination to rebuild her family's stature so that they can weather the war looming on the horizon after the death of both Shigeru and Iida. Brilliance of the Moon unites the two lovers, now wed, and follows Takeo as he attempt to unite the warring factions in his own life, avenge the death of his fathers, and fulfill the destiny revealed to him by a wise woman who said, "Five battles will buy you peace, four to win and one to lose."

Praise for the "Tales of the Otori" came from many reviewers, a Kirkus contributor describing the first novel as "a rousing, muscular piece of romantic adventure, replete with shadowy assassins, fluttering battle flags, and doomed love." While some critics felt that Grass for His Pillow served to only to support the first volume, the concluding book was described by Booklist contributor Kristine Huntley as "a worthy conclusion to a genuinely thrilling epic saga." "There is heroism, to be sure, and many a noble speech," a Kirkus contributor noted of Brilliance of the Moon, "but there are also a sadness and an acknowledgment of human folly that raise Hearn's writing far above where it's been before."

Many critic found much to praise in Rubinstein's writing in "Tales of the Otori," a Publishers Weekly contributor noting of the second volume: "With quick, direct sentences like brush strokes on a Japanese scroll, she suggests vast and mysterious landscapes full of both menace and wonder." In addition to being recorded as an audiobook and translated into a number of languages, the "Tales of the Otori" was seriously considered for screenplay adaptation by Universal Pictures.

Rubinstein continues to follow her stated goal of writing stories that draw and speak to alienated young readers. Yet the books she writes also serve as a connection with her own past. "Most of all," she commented in Something about the Author Autobiography, "when I write I want to spin the spell of words that enthralls the reader and takes them into the magic world of the imagination that inspired and consoled me when I was young. When I look back over my life, I can see that everything I've ever felt, whether it's been good or bad at the time, has all contributed to the emotion that goes into my writing."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Children's Literature Review, Volume 35, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995, pp. 207-213.

Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 25, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, fourth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995, pp. 844-845.

Twentieth-Century Young-Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 568-569.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, October 15, 1995, Chris Sherman, review of Galax-Arena, p. 403; October 15, 1996, Chris Sherman, review of Foxspell, pp. 414-415; August, 2002, Carrie Bissey, review of Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 1885; July, 2003, Kristine Huntley, review of Grass for His Pillow, p. 1845; May 1, 2004, Kristine Huntley, review of Brilliance of the Moon, p. 1483.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1997, p. 184; November, 1998, Janice M. Del Negro, review of Under the Cat's Eye: A Tale of Morph and Mystery, p. 111.

Children's Literature in Education, June, 1991, John Foster, "'Your Part in This Adventure Is Over, You Have Lost': Gillian Rubinstein's Novels for Older Readers," pp. 121-127.

Five Owls, January-February, 1997, Christine Heppermann, review of Foxspell, p. 62.

Horn Book, January-February, 1991, Ann A. Flowers, review of Beyond the Labyrinth, pp. 75-76; May-June, 1991, pp. 339-340; November-December, 1995, Ann A. Flowers, review of Galax-Arena, p. 206; November-December, 1996, Ann A. Flowers, review of Foxspell, p. 747; November, 1998, Ann A. Flowers, review of Under the Cat's Eye, p. 741; July 22, 2002, review of Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 163.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1998, p. 1292; June 15, 2992, review of Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 828; June 1, 2003, Gillian Rubinstein, review of Grass for His Pillow, p. 771; April 15, 2004, review of Brilliance of the Moon, p. 349.

Kliatt, September, 2003, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 24; January, 2004, Carol Reich, review of Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 40; March, 2004, Carol Reich, review of Grass for His Pillow, p. 50.

Library Journal, September 15, 2002, Jackie Cassada, review of Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 97.

Locus, February, 1989, p. 50.

Magpies, May, 1996, pp. 26-31.

New York Times Book Review, March 30, 1997, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, September 21, 1998, review of Under the Cat's Eye, p. 86; June 30, 2003, review of Grass for His Pillow, p. 62; May 10, 2004, review of Brilliance of the Moon, p. 42.

Reading Time, February, 1999, p. 26.

School Library Journal, April, 1991, p. 123; March, 1992, Susan Rogers, review of Space Demons and Skymaze, p. 177; September, 1996, Steven Engelfried, review of Foxspell, p. 206; October, 1998, p. 146; November, 2003, Susan Salpini, review of Grass for His Pillow, p. 171.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1995, Deborah A. Feulner, review of Foxspell, p. 282; October, 1998, Susan Dunn, review of Under the Cat's Eye, p. 288.

Wilson Library Bulletin, March, 1994, pp. 124-125.

ONLINE

Gillian Rubenstein Web site, http://www.gillianrubinstein.com (March 7, 2005).

Tales of the Otori Web site, http://www.theotori.com/ (March 7, 2005).

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