Writing NSW is honouring Katharine Susannah Prichard this month, the seventh writer in their annual celebration of our Australian literary heritage. Why read Prichard in the year 2020, fifty-one years after her death? I want to answer that by focusing on the joys her work can bring us today. This reading list accompanies the first video I made with Writing NSW for the celebration, which will be streaming on their site from 9 November 2020.
- The Wild Oats of Han (1928)
I start with the most underrated of Prichard’s books. The joy of reading The Wild Oats of Han is to be taken inside the mind of a spirited girl and experience what childhood felt like in the late Victorian era. It was last published (in an abridged version) in 1971. However, the original appearance in Home magazine is available on the Trove website, complete with illustrations, starting here.
- Haxby’s Circus (1930)
The joy of reading Haxby’s Circus is to immerse yourself in the dramas of a struggling family circus as it moves around Australia. It’s one of the easiest to find of Prichard’s books, and is currently available in paperback and as an ebook.
- Short stories
Prichard’s short stories give the joy of reading a virtuoso of the form. Here’s five of her best:
– The Kid (1907) – a gothic bush story, published the year her father killed himself. I think it’s the best of her early work.
– Christmas Tree (1919) – the first story she wrote in Western Australia, after traveling out to her husband’s struggling farm in the Wheatbelt. It’s one of the most successful integrations of politics in her oeuvre.
– The Grey Horse (1924) – winner of the Art in Australia short story competition.
– The Buccaneers (1935) – a light-hearted, gently humorous story of middle-age which evokes WA’s Rottnest Island superbly. It’s amazing that she wrote this soon after the suicide of her husband, Hugo, and while working flat out for the Communist Party.
– Flight (1938) – a poignant critique of the Stolen Generation policies.
- Coonardoo (1929)
The joy of reading Coonardoo is that of a tragic and beautifully told story of a station owner’s repressed love for an Aboriginal woman, Coonardoo. The novel was serialised in The Bulletin in 1928, and is also readily available in paperback and as an ebook. Wiradjuri writer Jeanine Leane offers an important response to its representation of Aboriginal people in this article.
Reading Prichard’s work takes you on a trip to a lost Australia. She wrote many of her books between the two world wars, and she captures what it meant to be Australian at a time just outside of our living memory. She wrote about the group aspects of life particularly well—interactions within families, communities, and work teams. She focused on work as a subject of fiction. On top of all of this, Prichard’s books also give us the pleasure of an engrossing read, her stories driven by plot and character and standing up well all these decades later.