I reviewed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s fourth novel, Working Bullocks (1926), three years ago, and after reading it again, I largely agree with my first reading. It’s the story of the people of the timber country in the South-West of WA and follows a young man named Red Burke who has a way with horses and bullocks but not people, as he is torn between two women and struggles to make his way in that world. I have some new reflections – mostly biographical – to add:

  • Even though the Great War is only mentioned in passing, it is very much a novel about the challenge of returning to normal life after the war. Red Burke, the hero, has to start again – his brothers sold his bullock team to the butcher while he was fighting. It echoes the situation of Katharine’s husband, Hugo Throssell, who returned from the war in debt from his failed farm at Cowcowing.
  • There’s just one moment where a memory from the war creeps in – ‘Red remembered mountainous waves which had risen about a troop-ship he was on, near the Cape of Good Hope. The forest surged like those waves about him and the Boss.’ (194)
  • Red and Deb are initially drawn together over the death – in a timber accident – of Deb’s brother, Chris, who happened to be Red’s best friend and partner. It’s another biographical echo, with Katharine and Hugo drawn together after the deaths of their respective brothers in the war.
  • Poor Deb has two brothers die, the second, Billy, toward the end of the novel in a mill accident. While the futility of the death of Katharine’s brother in the war fueled her political radicalisation, in the novel Billy’s death is due to the dangerous working conditions of the capitalist system. It’s Deb’s mother, Mary Ann Colburn, who is radicalised, working with the activist Mark Smith to support a strike of the timber workers.

I admit it’s a bad title; since last review, it was featured on Worst of Perth. The Worst of Perth was ungenerous in its outlook on my fair city, but also hilarious – until the things one loves became its target. Perth is so dominated by boganism that Worst of Perth was necessary as an outlet of critique. It also made fun of itself nearly as much as everyone else. It recently decided to end its run on its tenth anniversary.

The photo on this post is from my KSP collection – one of my proudest acquisitions, a third impression of the first edition with a VG dustjacket. Sadly, Working Bullocks is out of print despite being one of Katharine’s finest novels.