Working Bullocks (1926) was Katharine Susannah Prichard’s fourth published novel, and her first set in Western Australia, where she’d been living since 1919. Set in the karri forests of the south-west, it uses the fictional towns of Karri Creek and Marritown as stand-ins for places around Pemberton as she tells of romance, struggle and strike in the lives of timber workers.
It take some time to establish itself. The first third is concerned with detailed descriptions of the work of the bullock teams carting logs, and of the protagonist, Red, catching a wild brumby. Prichard is determined to achieve verismilitude (as she did with her observations of opal miners in her previous novel, Black Opal), but perhaps it comes at the expense of readability. Of course, the same passages which bogged me down would have probably been met with delight by contemporaneous readers looking for an experience of the bush.
We know from the start that her hero, Red, is a fascinating character, and he begins to hit his stride about Chapter XI. He is a tormented loner, a man of principles fighting against setbacks; his brothers thought him dead in the war and sold off his fine team of bullocks to the butchers (7). (Strangely, Prichard never returns to Red’s time in the war, a glaring omission in her characterisation.) After his best friend, Chris, dies in a timber accident, Red goes bush for a year, only to return to civilisation when he captures the finest brumby, Boss. He loses Tessa, the girl he had been seeing, but falls passionately for Chris’s sister, the far more suitable and down-to-earth Deb. Deb’s mother challenges him to regain a bullock team to prove he has the means to keep a wife. Having earlier referenced Jacob from Genesis, who worked seven years to earn his wife (48), it seemed to me that the novel had settled into a natural plotline: the trials of Red as he overcomes the odds to rebuild his bullock team. Yet what follows instead is a series of sharp twists in the plot.
There is to be a race between Red’s brumby Boss, and the horse of Tessa’s successful suitor, Leslie Gaze. Yet Tessa comes to him as the race is starting and says he must let Leslie win, because only then will he marry her, and if he does not marry her, she will ‘die’, bringing down both Leslie and Red with her. Red is pushed to his moral limits, facing a dilemma without a solution, but its terms are not clear enough, at least to this reader; could it be the censor, or at least Prichard’s concern for the censor? It seems Tessa is pregnant and will claim Red to be the father if he will not co-operate. Red throws the race, admits guilt, and walks away from his hope of marrying Deb, having covered himself in shame. He hits the bottle and turns into a harsh leader for the rest of the bullock team.
Soon after this, in chapter XXI, Mark Smith enters the narrative, in an interesting but somewhat unintegrated subplot. He works as Red’s offsider and becomes the closest he has to a friend. But most significantly, he is a communist, an agitator and he channels the workers’ anger at conditions into a strike after Deb’s other brother, Billy, is killed in the sawmill. Prichard paints the picture of a strike well, and it’s fascinating to watch Deb’s mother become a conscientious comrade to the cause during the strike. Yet the subplot is not anticipated; the workers’ conditions have not been foreshadowed as a problem, and the connection to the central plot is not well made.
The strike dies down and Red leaves town after he and Deb fall half in love. The rest of the novel settles into a romantic musical chairs, as Deb and Red must find their way back to each other through the obstacles of Niel the log chopper and the freshly widowed Tessa, back to snare Deb. (In one of the more innovative chapters, XXXI, Deb and Tessa are sharing a room and the narrative point of view switches back and forth between them.)
The sections of the novel told through Deb’s point of view are a highlight of the novel, and none more so than those describing her mystical communion with trees; ‘she had always gone to the trees when she was in trouble’ (273):
The trees were like people she knew who suddenly had become beautiful beyond anything earthly. Their stand and poise, long arms outflung, bodies tall and straight, crooked or gnomish, living flesh with the glamour of ivory, sloughing their bark, dark shapes wrapped in fibre. Deb swung to them in a fury of worship and admiration. The invocation, passion and lamentation of the trees swayed her. (275)
Deb and Red embody a simplicity and purity of life, two characters connected to their environment, work and appetites.
We should be grateful for Working Bullocks. It captures everyday working life in the Western Australian timber industry ninety years ago, yet balances that with a passionate, romantic sensibility. It was the novel which made her reputation on publication, and is usually regarded as one of her seminal works, yet while five or six of her other novels are in print today, I do not think Working Bullocks has been reprinted since 1991.