Tag Archives: Kalgoorlie

Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Winged Seeds: A Review

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Spoiler Alert

The third novel in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s goldfields trilogy, Winged Seeds (1950) sees her writing about a war which was only just over. It begins brightly in 1936, with vivacious twins turning up on the doorstep of the trilogy’s hero, the aging Sally Gough. Pat and Pam are twenty years old and the stepdaughters of Sally’s arch-enemy, Sir Paddy Cavan. Their visit gives Prichard an opportunity to show us the state of the goldfields at the time. Their flirtatious ways set tongues wagging in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, and a barometer of the sexual mores of the time. Yet the twins are not as easy as they seem; Pam is faithful to her fiancee fighting in the Spanish Civil War and Pat is in love with Sally’s grandson, Bill. They are fiercely anti-fascist, but cannot reveal their true sympathies until they turn twenty-one and inherit their father’s fortune, currently held by their wicked stepfather. Bill is the communist hero of this installment, taking on the mantle from his uncle, Tom, who dies early in the novel, his lungs destroyed by the mine. Bill is torn between his dedication to the cause and his desire for the “siren” Pat.

With various other subplots, there is already plenty enough to sustain an interesting narrative, but as in several other novels of Prichard’s, she unpicks her own set up. The twins leave suddenly; Bill goes off to fight World War Two. The protagonists of the first half only put in guest appearances for the rest of the novel, as the focus returns to Sally, as she struggles with what to make of World War Two, swayed and confused by debates around it, as well as re-living the grief of the Great War in which she lost one son and a second from its after-effects. Bill returns home from Greece injured, only to recover and be sent to New Guinea, where he goes missing, presumed killed by the Japanese. Pat drifts away from her commitment to progressive politics, marrying an American officer.  What was the novel building toward in its first half if not for Bill and the twins to do something extraordinary for the cause of communism? There is poignancy, though, in Sally trying to make sense of Bill’s death, and to find transcendence in the midst of death and disappointment.

The trilogy finishes wearily, with the two survivors, Sally and Dinny, burying Kargoola, the Aboriginal woman who they have known from the beginning, and finding hope in the winged seeds blown out from the kargooluh plant. Sally’s sons were dead, her grandson Billy was dead, but the ideas they lived for were immortal:

The life force strives towards perfection. What other imperative is there in living? The struggle had gone on through the ages. The vital germ in a seed attained its fine flowering and full fruit. How then could the great ideas and ideals of human progress be denied and annihilated? They could not. That was what Bill had believed , and what he tried to make people understand. (379)

Sandra Burchill comments that “… the optimistic vision for the future is not supported by any event in the novel and exists as a contradiction of what the trilogy has defined as a worsening situation both locally and internationally…” (364) The Cold War was a difficult period for Prichard to be writing in. She was a survivor like Sally, and had lived long enough to see more deaths and disappointments than most could bear.

At times the novel shimmers with the intensity and beauty of Prichard at her best. The scene in which Sally confronts her cheating lover, Frisco Jo, is particularly vivid. However, these passages are surrounded by long sections of “reportage”, the broader picture of the conditions of the goldfields conveyed through a session of “yarning” in which characters become mouthpieces for the information (Burchill, 313-314). It is a bold attempt to achieve a bigger canvas, but it is a significant reason why the trilogy was not as well regarded as Prichard hoped.

It is in print with Allen and Unwin, including in digital form; you can also pick up a secondhand first edition for not much more.

Work Cited

Burchill, Sandra. “Katharine Susannah Prichard: Romance, Romanticism and Politics.” PhD diss., UNSW (Australian Defence Force Academy), 1988.

The goldfields during the Great War and the aftermath: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Golden Miles

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Golden Miles (1946), the second in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s goldfields trilogy, spans 1914 to 1927 in the Western Australian goldfields, from the eve of World War One to the eve of the Great Depression. Sally Gough is the central character even more clearly than in The Roaring Nineties, and the rather untidy narrative takes her through a series of trials, with Paddy Cavan the nemesis lurking close to many of her misfortunes. At the beginning of the novel, she kicks him out of her boarding house for his gold stealing racket. He promises she will pay a high price; in one sense, the rest of the novel proves him true, even if he is only minimally directly responsible. The other way to sum up the disparate happenings of the novel is as the tales of the fate of Sally’s four sons coming to adulthood, each representing a different way of living in the world. All of this is against a bigger backdrop, as Sally’s son, Tom, reflects: “There were those sinister forces outside Sally, her home and her sons, always threatening the security of the small fort she had built for herself. No one lived alone in a world where war, disease and the ruthless struggle for wealth and power, swept thousands of little people like her into the maelstrom of economic and national crises.” (99)

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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.