Tag Archives: Aboriginals

Review: Potch and Colour by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Here’s my slightly tatty copy of Potch and Colour, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s 1944 collection of short stories. It’s the only copy I’ve ever seen – it’s not particularly rare or valuable, but it shows up less often than her better known books. I found this copy serendipitously in a secondhand booksale run by the library where I work. I wish it had the beautiful dust cover I have glimpsed at low-resolution in an antiquarian bookdealer’s catalogue (right).Potch and Colour 2

Katharine wrote some incredible short stories. I would go as far as to say that I think the form suited her better than the novel, even if she is not as remembered for it. This collection mainly includes stories originally published in journals after her first collection, Kiss On the Lips (1932), but the first appearance of some of them still needs to be established. One story, at least, is quite early – “The Bridge”; I found a newspaper copy of it on Trove from 1917 (unfortunately, it’s not one of her “incredible” stories; but it’s here, if you’re interested).

This collection divides into two types of story – goldfields “yarns” and the more substantial, realist stories, several of them about Aboriginal characters. The yarns are old-fashioned and entertaining enough with flashes of inspiration. They point the way to The Roaring Nineties, the first novel of the goldfields trilogy, which Katharine was already writing when Potch and Colour was published.  But it’s the other stories which impressed me.

There’s three particularly worth commenting on.

The first is “The Siren of Sandy Gap,” which manages to be both humorous and an astute critique of marriage. Susan, “a little woman, well over fifty,”  leaves her tight-fisted husband  George for the more jolly Dave. She “lives in sin” with Dave unapologetically but talks fondly to her ex-husband when he comes to beg her to return to him. When her new lover becomes morose and fights with her ex-husband over her, she runs off with a third, younger man. “‘I want to go away and have some peace and happiness in my life,’ Susan said. ‘They’ve no right to think I must just do what they say.'”

The second is “Flight,” a story which begins with a police officer charged with removing three “half-caste” (sic) Aboriginal children from their families. He doesn’t particularly agree with their removal, but his strongest feeling is not about the injustice so much as the embarrassment in the eyes of the locals as they watch him ride his horse with the girls. When he arrives at his house, the point of view shifts to his wife, who feels compassion for the girls, but of a very narrow kind – she feels strongly they shouldn’t have their hands tied for the night and sneaks out to untie them, telling them she’ll come back first thing in the morning to retie them. And then the point of view shifts to the girls themselves and the options that face them, untied as they are. It’s a traditional, beautifully crafted story which is devastating and prescient in its critique of the Stolen Generations policy.

The third is “Christmas Tree,” a poignant portrait of failed wheat farmers in Western Australia in the Depression. It’s one of the occasions Katharine gets the balance right between her politics and aesthetics, as she reveals the injustice of the banking system not didactically but through the eyes of one of its victims. Perhaps her husband Hugo’s failure as a farmer before World War One fed into her account. My supervisor Tony Hughes-D’Aeth tells me this story gets a mention in his literary history of the WA wheatbelt, forthcoming from UWA Publishing.

Katharine’s stories are not in print at the moment, though several “best-of” collections have been published – the ones containing just her short stories are Happiness, published in 1967, two years before she died, and Tribute (1988), selected and edited by her son Ric Throssell. Rather than a new selection or a reprint of one of the old collections, I think the best thing for the future would be a collected stories edition.  It could showcase her development as a writer and the themes which preoccupied her over different periods and show how substantial her body of short fiction is.


Gold Fever: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Roaring Nineties

The Roaring Nineties (1946) is the first volume of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s magnum opus, her goldfields trilogy. She spent a decade on the trilogy, regarding it as her finest achievement, and was deeply hurt by the mixed reception she received from critics (especially for the third volume, Winged Seeds). The trilogy is an epic telling the story of the Western Australian goldfields from the discovery of gold and spanning the decades which followed.

The novel is haunted by the presence of displaced and mistreated Aborigines, and begins with a short, violent story of an abduction of two Aboriginal women by prospectors before gold had even been discovered. It is Prichard at her finest, writing in spare and evocative prose. It is a remarkable reorientation of her novel, throwing off-balance this story of whites and their gold; today it would almost be expected, but in 1946 it shows historical insight ahead of its time. From here, the novel tells of the initial gold rush in the 1890s and the establishment of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie Boulder. Prichard brings the dust, tents, excitement, and desperation alive in a way that historical studies cannot do. She researched this novel thoroughly and it shows; sometimes to the detriment of narrative, but mostly to help her create an authentic story. The historical background is never far from the story, forming a spine which moves the story along through a series of incidents, with a large cast of characters moving on and off the stage. It is Sally Gough who is closest to a protagonist, as she makes a living running a boarding house to compensate for her ineffectual aristocratic gambler of a husband, Morrie. The struggle between them is an ongoing aspect of the plot, as he gradually accepts her egalitarian ethos, both in class and gender terms. Sally’s insistence that she and Morrie should not elevate themselves above the others contrasts with Alf and Laura’s move up the class rankings, as mining becomes commercialised and Alf betrays his prospector roots to become a mine manager. The class struggle of the alluvial prospectors against the mining companies and the political establishment occupies much of the last third of book, and is the least engaging, often losing sight of the characters.

The novel is, rather loosely, a frame narrative, with the whole novel presented as the yarns of prospector Dinny Quinn about the early days of the goldfields. This device is used frequently in the early chapters, peters out, and is then revived toward the end of the book. Dinny is rarely central to the action, more an observer who knows all the characters.

Having read about some of the reception history of The Roaring Nineties, and the critical preoccupation of the time with rating it against and comparing it with her earlier work, what surprised me most about the novel is how very typically Prichardian it is. This novel has elements of almost all of her previous novels; it seems far less of a departure than Coonardoo or Intimate Strangers were. The foundation and growth of a community echoes The Pioneers. The depiction of the prospectors with their strong code of ethics (such as “roll ups” where disputes are settled) and their struggle against big companies is similar to the concerns of Black Opal. The mistreatment of Aboriginal women as temporary sexual partners brings Coonardoo to mind. The struggle of Sally Gough for her right to earn money and define herself apart from her husband echoes Haxby’s Circus and Intimate Strangers.


Coonardoo: preliminary thoughts on its place in Prichard’s work and life

coonardoo

Coonardoo (1929) is the novel Katharine Susannah Prichard is best remembered for, a tragedy of the thwarted love between a station owner, Hugh, and an Aboriginal woman, Coonardoo, set in the Pilbara of Western Australia. It was ahead of its time in its depiction of race relations in Australia, and surely confronted Australians with some of the ugliness of their racism at its time; inevitably, by today’s standards, some aspects of the book itself seem somewhat racist, with talk of evolution of races and the ‘primitive’ charm of Aboriginality.

In this novel, Prichard’s narrative voice has shifted significantly from that of Working Bullocks, Black Opal and The Pioneers, all of which are more similar to each other than to this novel. To me, those earlier three novels all have a nineteenth century sensibility and tone, while Coonardoo is decidedly modern. The precedent in Prichard’s own work is The Wild Oats of Han, which appeared the year before Coonardoo, despite being written right back in 1907. Unlike the others, Han is a personal and autobiographical work, and my favourite of her novels so far. But like Coonardoo, its tone is less sentimental and the voice feels more direct; the narrator is further back, without the same sense of presence and control.

One way in which Coonardoo connects to Bullocks, Opal and Pioneers is that each presents a community with at least the capacity to be a kind of paradise, under threat by forces of fate and characters who do not understand the paradise. The paradise could be an opal town where everyone is their own boss, threatened by capitalists, or a timber community threatened by the greed of the sawmill. In Coonardoo, the ‘paradise’ is Wytaliba Station, with its harmonious relationships between the whites and blacks, as set up by Hugh’s mother, Mrs Bessie. The characters who ‘understand’ the paradise love the harsh isolation of the station life and treat the Aborigines with respect; Hugh’s wife, Mollie, does neither. A cardinal rule of the paradise is for the white men not to take the ‘gins’ as a harem, as Sam Geary on the neighboring station has done; it’s partly borne out of rejecting exploitation but also partly out of anti-miscegenation. The community is threatened and ultimately destroyed by both the forces of nature – drought – and Hugh’s inability to cope with this cardinal rule. Before she died, his mother set up an impossible dynamic in entrusting Coonardoo (the character) with the duty to look after Hugh, while also requiring that Hugh not take her as his partner. And so it is that this paradise is doomed, while the previous three hold out against the forces of fate and evil and carry on, albeit transformed, and the hope resting in the next generation. (Of course, we might see a note of hope in Hugh’s daughter, Phyllis, carrying on the station life, albeit on the neighbouring station.)

The novel developed as a genre of the self, the individual; one of Prichard’s achievements is the rare feat of depicting communities convincingly in novels. She is always interested in many different characters, switching rather democratically between viewpoints, and representing the web of interrelations in a community. Most importantly of all, she strives to capture the essence of a community, its ethos and spirit, the values which hold it together.

Like most of Prichard’s novels, Coonardoo resists a biographical reading. She researched the novel in the 1920s, spending time on a station in the North-West, just as she researched opal mining, the timber industry and the circus for other novels. Some biographical questions still presented themselves to me as I read. What significance are we to give her naming the protagonist ‘Hugh’, when her own husband’s name was ‘Hugo’ (admittedly, everyone called him ‘Jim’)? Both are paragons of Australianness; and perhaps like the character Hugh, Hugo/Jim was troubled by demons he didn’t articulate. It would be interesting to discover if Prichard saw herself reflected in Phyllis, who arrives at the station in a ‘borrowed’ car in chapter 23, escaping an affair gone wrong in Perth, and sets out challenging the gender stereotypes of the station, starting with the wearing of trousers. It would not surprise me if these chapters echoed most closely Prichard’s own time on the station. Like Prichard, Phyllis seems determined not to marry, only to find herself charmed by a suitor; the wooing of Phyllis feels a little like Prichard’s description of her own experience in Child of the Hurricane. And finally, speaking of the ‘child of the hurricane’, Prichard’s designation for herself, born in the middle of a Fijian cyclone – Coonardoo and Hugh’s child is referred to as the ‘son of the whirlwind’. Perhaps Prichard enjoyed the resonance between her own origin story and the Aboriginal understanding of whirlwinds giving a child its spirit; or perhaps her own personal mythology even developed in response to this.