Golden Miles (1946), the second in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s goldfields trilogy, spans 1914 to 1927 in the Western Australian goldfields, from the eve of World War One to the eve of the Great Depression. Sally Gough is the central character even more clearly than in The Roaring Nineties, and the rather untidy narrative takes her through a series of trials, with Paddy Cavan the nemesis lurking close to many of her misfortunes. At the beginning of the novel, she kicks him out of her boarding house for his gold stealing racket. He promises she will pay a high price; in one sense, the rest of the novel proves him true, even if he is only minimally directly responsible. The other way to sum up the disparate happenings of the novel is as the tales of the fate of Sally’s four sons coming to adulthood, each representing a different way of living in the world. All of this is against a bigger backdrop, as Sally’s son, Tom, reflects: “There were those sinister forces outside Sally, her home and her sons, always threatening the security of the small fort she had built for herself. No one lived alone in a world where war, disease and the ruthless struggle for wealth and power, swept thousands of little people like her into the maelstrom of economic and national crises.” (99)
Before the novel gets properly underway, it begins rather ineffectually with a summary of the events since the end of The Roaring Nineties, using the clumsy device of Bill Jehosaphat turning up after an absence of some years and surveying what Kalgoorlie has become. The conversation with old timers like Dinny didactically outlines various occurrences.
One important development has been the rise of gold stealing by underground miners, and in the first subplot, the gold stealing culminates in Sally’s fears coming true: her husband, Morris, and her son, Tom, are caught with stolen gold and sent to prison for several months. The character of the sons is emerging in this first section, with Tom the true hero – a hard-working miner, who spends his spare time reading political tracts and organising the workers. He is contrasted with Sally’s favourite son, Dick, who she has sacrificed to send to Sydney to study metallurgy at university, only for him to come home early without a degree. Dick’s marriage to Amy, the beautiful daughter of Sally’s oldest friend, Laura, seems like a perfect match.
It seems the gold stealing racket and its resolution are to be the main focus of the novel, but instead the focus shifts to World War One, as Sally’s sons Lal and then Dick head off to fight. It is the most sustained treatment of World War One in Prichard’s writings; it took her thirty years after the war to write about it. The novels she wrote during and immediately after the war barely mention it. But, here at last, is a depiction of what it meant to live through the war, albeit in Kalgoorlie rather than London and Melbourne where Prichard herself was living. The conscription debate divides the family as it divides the nation. Lal is killed, echoing the death of Prichard’s beloved brother, Alan. Dick survives, but returns a broken, changed man; the effect of war on him was closer to that of Prichard’s husband, Hugo Throssell, the broken war hero who never recovered from what he experienced in the trenches. Dick’s marriage breaks down, with Amy eventually running off with Paddy Cavan. When Dick dies in a mining accident, they find a letter from Amy in his pocket, seeking a divorce. Sally is haunted by the possibility that it may have been suicide, only to find reasons to believe it was not. Different ambiguities surrounded Throssell’s suicide in Prichard’s life, and perhaps some of the power of this section derives from Prichard’s own deep experience of tragedy.
It’s after World War One that the novel feels most untidy, at times becoming quite episodic.
A significant number of chapters are given to an industrial dispute over non-union labour, reading more like a partisan historical narrative than a section of a novel.
Denny, the son who loves horses, has spent the war in the south-west, helping out on the dairy farm Sally grew up on. He falls in love with a neighbouring farm-girl, and his spinster aunts decide that he will inherit the farm. He has broken free of the goldfields, and the dangers of mining accidents and lung disease, as well as reconciling Sally to her surviving family of origin. She is glad to have one son “safe”, while also knowing she herself belongs on the goldfields.
Sally’s ineffectual husband, Morris, dies, and she evenually takes up with Frisco Joe, the rogue she has been attracted to for decades. A strange threesome develops with Dinny, the trusted advisor – Sally’s two devoted men giving her the comfort and company she needs in her late-middle age. It is a position of some strength for a woman to be in, a kind of polyandrous relationship, although the sexual aspect is confined to two of them. In a pleasant episode, the three of them head out in Sally’s car, visiting the old ghost towns, abandoned after the gold ran out.
The novel temporarily veers into crime fiction territory, as the mutilated bodies of two detectives investigating gold theft are found. There is a bit of sleuthing by some observant miners which helps the police arrest the murderers, as well as an account of the intrigues of the trial, but it seems half-hearted, or at least underdeveloped. Perhaps it was based on a true incident which Prichard felt she just had to include.
Two final episodes bring a kind of closure to earlier subplots. Firstly, Amy returns to reclaim her son, Billy, who she abandoned years earlier. He is thirteen, and wants nothing to do with her, much to Sally’s pride. Secondly, Kargoola, Sally’s Aboriginal friend and helper, is moved along by the police, banned with the other Aborigines from the town centre. Kargoola appears a few times through the narrative, with her daughter murdered after she threatened to reveal details of corruption. In this final scene, Sally is furious with Kargoola’s treatment, and reflects that the only hope for Aborigines is “social organisation.” Kargoola stands in the sunset, letting out a cry of defiance. It is an interesting note to end on, especially as Aboriginal themes are much less prominent in the novel compared to The Roaring Nineties. Sally and Prichard have not forgotten the plight of the Aboriginals, and I hope to find they return to them more fully in the final volume of the trilogy.
Despite the untidiness, Golden Miles is an interesting novel, with passages of beautiful prose and some gripping chapters, as well as illuminating what was recent history. Working Bullocks was theoretically set in about the same time, yet her earlier novel was almost impermeable to the events of the outside world, while Golden Miles is a novel which truly evoke the times as well as the place.