In 1926, Katharine spent ten weeks on Turee Station in the Pilbara. There was red dirt everywhere, the food tasted like petrol, the vegetables ran out, and Katharine was stricken with sandy blight. Yet out of it came some of her most important works, including the novel Coonardoo. It’s the story of the repressed and thwarted love between a white station owner, Hugh, and an Aboriginal woman named Coonardoo. The denial of their love destroys both their lives. It caused an outcry when it was first published for its depiction of the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women by one of Hugh’s neighbours. Outraged letters to the editor declared that it was a libel on all the fine people of the north and such things did not happen. They did, of course, and the novel became part of the Australian canon, seen as a groundbreaking portrayal of race relations. Yet this century, its shortcomings have been written about by Indigenous scholars like Jeanine Leane. It is, inevitably, a white depiction of Aboriginal people and nearly one hundred years old; it does not reckon properly with the dispossession of Aboriginal people or empower them. It was ahead of its time and yet of its time. Katharine even acknowledged this in her lifetime, saying decades later that she would have written it differently in the present. I think it’s a beautiful, sparse tragedy and her finest novel, still worthy of attention today, even if we must read it with some caution.
You can find the full story of Coonardoo and its sister works in chapter 22 of The Red Witch, ‘The Station’ – out 17 May.