Posted on February 2, 2014 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: The Golden Day (2011) by Ursula Dubosarsky.
Here be spoilers.
The Golden Day is a young adult title by Australian author, Ursula Dubosarsky. It follows a young female protagonist, Cubby, through her grammar school days up until her high school graduation. But the story really isn't about Cubby, but about a chilling event she shared with her classmates during a school outing in 1967.
Cubby's teacher, Miss Renshaw, is idealistic, outspoken and eccentric. But for a young girl whose life is governed by rules and unquestioning respect for adult authority, it's truly unthinkable to question or criticize Miss Renshaw's peculiarities. Still, Cubby and her classmates become concerned when Miss Renshaw becomes fascinated by a young bohemian gardener-cum-poet named Morgan who works at the nearby Ena Thompson Memorial Gardens. Miss Renshaw finds endless reasons to take the girls to the gardens, distracting them with busy-work while she woos Morgan.
As the woman's relationship with Morgan deepens, so does her need for secrecy. She's constantly admonishing her students to keep the trips to the garden and her association with the gardener quiet, and here is where the book is most chilling. Even the most sheltered child knows there's something wrong when an adult tells them to keep secrets from mom and dad – but no one's sure from where the growing sense of unease originates. Is if from the formerly reliable educator who's now acting like a silly schoolgirl herself? Or from the gardener, whom Miss Renshaw claims is such a sensitive and beautiful soul, yet who seems strangely off-kilter.
Then, on one golden day, Miss Renshaw announces another field trip. This time the destination is the nearby coast, outside of the relatively safe confines of the garden and away from the prying eyes of the public.
"Morgan is going to take us somewhere special today, girls," said Miss Renshaw. "You are very lucky…"
"There are many secret places," Morgan said, looking around the circle, but somehow not really looking at them. "So many hidden spots along the harbor, places nobody knows about." [page 27]
The field trip's different not just because Morgan promises to show the girls a sea cave covered in Aboriginal artwork, but because Miss Renshaw insistence on secrecy is so heightened. But Cubby and the others, indoctrinated into the strict discipline of their school, follow their teacher's directions and keep the secret even after the adults venture into the cave and vanish.
It's this dual missing person case which becomes the defining experience of Cubby's childhood and the central theme of the book. When the trip to the sea cave is finally revealed to the police days later, they find no evidence of Miss Renshaw other than her broken amber necklace. Following the subsequent revelation that Morgan is an ex-convict, most everyone believes Miss Renshaw met a violent end. But for Cubby and her friends, there's still hope. Until their teacher is discovered dead, surely it's possible she's alive? It's the anguish of not knowing which haunts the second half of The Golden Day and Dubosarsky does a fine job of maintaining the tension.
It's not until years later that a chance encounter in a local café answers some questions. Yet this ending was problematic for me, partly because it felt contrived and partly because it introduced another mystery which was never explored because the book ended immediately afterward. While I'm okay with some ambiguity in a book's conclusion (see my review of Where Things Come Back, as an example), an author still needs to satisfy her audience. Miss Renshaw was a fool, but I wanted to have some closure to the mystery I'd been chewing on for nearly two hundred pages. Moreover, I wanted the anguish endured by Cubby and her classmates alleviated, at least in part. Being deprived of this however, The Golden Day was ultimately unsatisfying.