, ,


Post #5 in my Australian Short Story Festival series

Katharine Susannah Prichard published two books in the 1950s – Winged Seeds, a goldfields novel, at the beginning of the decade in 1950, and N’goola and Other Stories at the end of the decade in 1959. It was a difficult decade for Katharine -she felt the sting of Cold War persecution as a Communist; her health was poor; her only son was living overseas and then interstate; and the writing projects she had envisaged in 1950 did not work out how she hoped. N’goola brings together this decade of troubled writing. There’s much in it which surprised and interested me.

Katharine’s old friend, Vance Palmer, died in July 1959, adding poignancy to the brief foreword he wrote for N’Goola. It’s a tribute to Katharine’s work, set in the past tense, even though she had another decade of living and writing while he did not:

Young people today may not be fully aware of the flood of new life Katharine Prichard poured into our writing. Such vital freshets from the underground springs of creation flow into the main stream and are absorbed, perhaps their force and volume forgotten… [Her novels] brought indisputable evidence that a new writer had arisen, one of lyric freshness, of original vision, of dramatic power… She wrote easily in the Australian idiom, weaving a lively and poetic language from images of the natural world around her, from aboriginal names, from the talk of blacks, bushmen, or men working on their jobs.

Palmer goes on to highlight Katharine’s writing about Aboriginal Australians, saying “it is inspiring to find her in these stories still bringing new figures to us from the aboriginal world.” Along with the title story about an Aboriginal woman and the dust-jacket featuring two Aboriginal people against an Aboriginal art design, I’d assumed the collection was a themed one, but actually only five of the eighteen stories have Aboriginal characters in them.

At the beginning of 1951, Katharine noted in a letter to her son, Ric, that one of the projects she had “brewing” was a “Novel with half cast [sic] problem as subject to be called ‘Boronia’.” In an unpublished letter, Ric later laments that writing her autobiography diverted Katharine from this novel. I shared his disappointment that she didn’t write the projected novel, and I have previously speculated that she must have thrown out any drafts or notes. Yet I’m now quite sure that the novel turned into a short story we do have – “N’goola”. At the end of the story, a glossary translates “n’goola” as “wild boronia”. The story is about Mary, a woman taken from her Aboriginal mother as a child and now trying to live like a white person, yet kept on the fringes of society. An old Aboriginal man comes to town who’s been searching for a woman named N’goola for years. He tells his story to Mary. When N’goola was born to his wife, she was pale-skinned and rejected by the tribe, but he accepted her as his own daughter, only for her to be removed from the family by the government. N’goola is, of course, Mary, and the story ends happily with a reunion between the two. An interesting aspect of the story is the depiction of a debate within the Aboriginal community of how to treat children with white fathers. There’s potential in the story for expansion, but it works fine at its existing length, and perhaps Katharine decided against turning it into a novel.

Although the book begins on this note of hope, it ends with one of Katharine’s bleakest stories, “Naninja and Janey”, first published in Meanjin in 1952. When rations run low at Skull Creek on the goldfields, two old Aboriginal women set out into the desert to die. Mary, a white woman, feels terrible about it and brings the police in to find them; reluctantly, the police go out to look for them, only to report that they’re dead and the dingoes had gotten to their bodies. The passive, helpless concern of Mary – who despairs but doesn’t go out into the desert herself to find them – is part of the horror of the story.

There are three Cold War stories in the collection, and unfortunately for Katharine’s political hopes, they are among the weakest. “Communists are Always Young” is not really a story at all. Mrs McBryde tells the tale – in the form of reported conversation – of how she became a communist even though her son told her she was too old. It reads like an article for a communist newsletter, encouraging the older generation that they could make a contribution, too. “A Young Comrade” takes the form of a conversation between a young communist woman and her cell-mates after she’s been sentenced to seven days prison for a demonstration. Again, it wears its ideological purpose too obviously and has too little literary quality to it. A better Cold War story is “The Long Shadow”, set in Australia at the time of the Rosenberg executions in  1953. Fran and the other girls of a ballet class notice the protest outside the American consulate calling for the Rosenbergs to be reprieved. Madame Nina, their teacher, reveals herself to be a communist. One of the mothers pressures the other parents to withdraw their children from the lessons, but Fran’s parents stand firm and even join the protest. These three Cold War stories point the way to Prichard’s final novel, Subtle Flame (1967).

The story which delighted me most was “The Buccaneers” – it’s so different to most of Katharine’s stories, so evocative of Western Australia in the 1930s, and a great exemplar of particular type of modest, middlebrow story. Published in The Bulletin in 1935 and thus thought by Austlit to be the earliest story in the collection, it’s a story of Perth’s holiday – and former penal – island, Rottnest. Three boys call themselves “the buccaneers” after they run away and sail to the island; as they grow up, they continue the tradition. In their middle-age, they find themselves respectively divorced, widowed, and a confirmed bachelor. Hanging out on Rottnest with three young women causes tensions in their friendship. It’s a deceptively light-hearted story that beautifully captures the disappointments of aging. “Life had never been quite what imagined it would be, so they lived in the exploits of their youth, sucking from adventurous dreams the rapture and thrills that had never quite materialised.” (101) It has an effective twist, as the men panic and conspire to leave the island after one of them proposes to one of the women, only for them to discover as they are leaving that the three women are all married with children and “only off the chain for a month.”  It’s significant for its depiction of Rottnest Island in the 1930s; its descriptions of the holiday beach life puts it in the company of Katharine’s contemporaneous novel, Intimate Strangers. She includes this notable description of Rottnest:

He loved the island, its bays and craggy headlands, the sea spreading out from them, shallow green on white beaches, amethyst and purple over the reefs, streaked with jade and malachite, sapphire in deeper water and indigo to the far horizon; the white roads running inland over low hills, the scented dark shrub and filmy mauve lace flowers growing in drifts over the hillsides; the square solid buildings of the penal settlements; the salt lakes gleaming like old shells, pink and mother-of-pearl in the evening light: the snipe which collected in hundreds about them, rising and wheeling as you passed by so that their wings flashed rose and silver. (89-90)

Another unusual story is “The Prayer Meeting”. It’s told through the eyes of six-year-old Bin, hiding behind the curtains so she can see the prayer meeting. Her uncle Raymond is about to marry a divorcee barmaid, and while aunt Aenid is supportive, Aunt Binah is against the marriage and their mother, Martha, is unsure. They enlist the prayerful support of the minister Ephraim Aitcheson, who has discovered those sordid details of Ida’s life. The story is a reflection on the narrow-mindedness of morality in the 1950s, and gives Katharine an opportunity to critique Christianity, not just for its morality but also for what she saw as the silliness of prayer. (In 1907, Katharine herself prayed earnestly that her father would be healed of his depression only for him to commit suicide; that destroyed the last vestige of faith for her.) In the climax of the story, Bin bursts out of the curtains and declares that she, too, has been praying – not against the marriage, but for the biggest chockie in the world and a bigger stomach to eat it. It’s a good story, controlled and poignant.

“Yoirimba” is a simple and powerful story of just a few pages, set in Greenmount on the edge of Perth where Katharine lived. A spinster teacher named Miss Priscilla buys a “half-acre block of wild flowers and rocks on the hillside”; from it “the lights of the city sparkled along the horizon at dusk”. She builds a shack on the block and delights in the wildflower garden. She is determined that “not a tree or wildflower is going to be moved”. Her parents are farmers and have got too old to carry on their hard work on the land. She invites them to come live with her, in the simple house with its wild garden which needs no work. When Miss Priscilla is sent to the goldfields to teach for a term, her parents are left alone in the house. While she’s away, her father “cut down the trees, burnt off the scrub, borrowed a horse and plough and turned-up the hillside. He planted vines and fruit trees, and set out a garden in the front of the house. Mrs Tebbut planted marigolds and geraniums, stocks and sweet-peas.” Miss Priscilla returns, devastated by the transformation of her wild paradise into a miniature farm. It is a sad story about misunderstandings between aged parents and adult children, a clash of values about the environment and the purpose of life.

Biographically, the most important story is “The Happy Farmer”, telling the suicide of a stubborn farmer named Tom. It stands alongside Katharine’s novel, Intimate Strangers, as a work of fiction with the most obvious parallels to the death of her own husband, Like Hugo, the fictional Tom was farming with his brother when the Great War started and they went off to fight; his brother was killed and he came home wounded. Unlike Hugo, the wound is physical in Tom’s case – he’s lost an arm. He marries Molly, who had been a piano teacher (like Elodie in Intimate Strangers) and they have four boys. “Tom was impatient of his eldest son’s fear of horses and his uselessness out of doors. Futile to protest that Bob was a war baby, the offspring of over-wrought nerves and her own love of music, maybe.” (140) Tom won’t accept any extra help on account of his disability. A drought sends them to the wall, and with the bank having sent a foreclosure notice, Molly sits feeding her sickly baby while she listens to Tom and their eldest son working outside. It ends with the sound of a shot; Tom is dead and “The world went dark for her.” (144)

Of the stories I haven’t mentioned, many of them are set in familiar KSP territory – a coal mine, the goldfields, a quarry, a station. Some feel incomplete, sketches; others are yarns which work well as entertainments for their time; and several are polished, fine short stories. N’Goola was the third and final of her short story collections; it was followed by her selected volume, Happiness (1967). There’s something appropriate in the wild diversity of all three of Katharine’s short story collections. They show a writer at her best and also at her most workmanlike. They show the breadth of her concerns and the range of styles influencing her. They show a working writer.