Coonardoo (1929) is the novel Katharine Susannah Prichard is best remembered for, a tragedy of the thwarted love between a station owner, Hugh, and an Aboriginal woman, Coonardoo, set in the Pilbara of Western Australia. It was ahead of its time in its depiction of race relations in Australia, and surely confronted Australians with some of the ugliness of their racism at its time; inevitably, by today’s standards, some aspects of the book itself seem somewhat racist, with talk of evolution of races and the ‘primitive’ charm of Aboriginality.
In this novel, Prichard’s narrative voice has shifted significantly from that of Working Bullocks, Black Opal and The Pioneers, all of which are more similar to each other than to this novel. To me, those earlier three novels all have a nineteenth century sensibility and tone, while Coonardoo is decidedly modern. The precedent in Prichard’s own work is The Wild Oats of Han, which appeared the year before Coonardoo, despite being written right back in 1907. Unlike the others, Han is a personal and autobiographical work, and my favourite of her novels so far. But like Coonardoo, its tone is less sentimental and the voice feels more direct; the narrator is further back, without the same sense of presence and control.
One way in which Coonardoo connects to Bullocks, Opal and Pioneers is that each presents a community with at least the capacity to be a kind of paradise, under threat by forces of fate and characters who do not understand the paradise. The paradise could be an opal town where everyone is their own boss, threatened by capitalists, or a timber community threatened by the greed of the sawmill. In Coonardoo, the ‘paradise’ is Wytaliba Station, with its harmonious relationships between the whites and blacks, as set up by Hugh’s mother, Mrs Bessie. The characters who ‘understand’ the paradise love the harsh isolation of the station life and treat the Aborigines with respect; Hugh’s wife, Mollie, does neither. A cardinal rule of the paradise is for the white men not to take the ‘gins’ as a harem, as Sam Geary on the neighboring station has done; it’s partly borne out of rejecting exploitation but also partly out of anti-miscegenation. The community is threatened and ultimately destroyed by both the forces of nature – drought – and Hugh’s inability to cope with this cardinal rule. Before she died, his mother set up an impossible dynamic in entrusting Coonardoo (the character) with the duty to look after Hugh, while also requiring that Hugh not take her as his partner. And so it is that this paradise is doomed, while the previous three hold out against the forces of fate and evil and carry on, albeit transformed, and the hope resting in the next generation. (Of course, we might see a note of hope in Hugh’s daughter, Phyllis, carrying on the station life, albeit on the neighbouring station.)
The novel developed as a genre of the self, the individual; one of Prichard’s achievements is the rare feat of depicting communities convincingly in novels. She is always interested in many different characters, switching rather democratically between viewpoints, and representing the web of interrelations in a community. Most importantly of all, she strives to capture the essence of a community, its ethos and spirit, the values which hold it together.
Like most of Prichard’s novels, Coonardoo resists a biographical reading. She researched the novel in the 1920s, spending time on a station in the North-West, just as she researched opal mining, the timber industry and the circus for other novels. Some biographical questions still presented themselves to me as I read. What significance are we to give her naming the protagonist ‘Hugh’, when her own husband’s name was ‘Hugo’ (admittedly, everyone called him ‘Jim’)? Both are paragons of Australianness; and perhaps like the character Hugh, Hugo/Jim was troubled by demons he didn’t articulate. It would be interesting to discover if Prichard saw herself reflected in Phyllis, who arrives at the station in a ‘borrowed’ car in chapter 23, escaping an affair gone wrong in Perth, and sets out challenging the gender stereotypes of the station, starting with the wearing of trousers. It would not surprise me if these chapters echoed most closely Prichard’s own time on the station. Like Prichard, Phyllis seems determined not to marry, only to find herself charmed by a suitor; the wooing of Phyllis feels a little like Prichard’s description of her own experience in Child of the Hurricane. And finally, speaking of the ‘child of the hurricane’, Prichard’s designation for herself, born in the middle of a Fijian cyclone – Coonardoo and Hugh’s child is referred to as the ‘son of the whirlwind’. Perhaps Prichard enjoyed the resonance between her own origin story and the Aboriginal understanding of whirlwinds giving a child its spirit; or perhaps her own personal mythology even developed in response to this.