This chapter from my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard was published in Westerly late last year. It stands on its own as the story of Katharine’s childhood from 1887 to 1895, drawing particularly on the historical basis of her children’s novel, The Wild Oats of Han.
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Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Wild Oats of Han, her memoir of childhood published as a children’s novel, has an interesting publishing history. In the foreword, Prichard writes that it was written in 1908, which predates any of her other published novels. Continue reading
I’m trying to read the fiction of Katharine Susannah Prichard at least roughly in order, but of course that’s never as straightforward as it sounds. The Wild Oats of Han wasn’t published until 1928, but it was actually written in 1908, meaning that perhaps I should have it read it first; I’m reading it second.
Its genre is complicated, too. It’s presented as a children’s novel, but (my 1968 edition at least) is introduced with a note from KSP saying it ‘is truly, really story’, an idiosyncratic way to say it really happened. It is perhaps a memoir of childhood written in the form of fiction. Regardless, it is beautiful.
In this book, KSP’s prose is lyrical and captures the mind of a child incredibly well. Han is a dreamy, rebellious girl, a fascinating character, a girl who ‘scarcely knew the world of the real from the world of the unreal: both were blended in the crystal of her mind.’ (16) A mentor figure, Sam the woodcutter, tells her that ‘wild oats is a crop most people sow when they live like children’. (56) (The meaning has surely narrowed over the years.) Han determinedly sows her oats, skipping school to glory in the beauty of the bush; enchanted by the circus; battling her nemesis, Miss Whittler; in love with the family and friends around her. It is episodic, each short chapter almost self-contained, with only a loose progression of the overall narrative. Things change in the last few chapters, as the circumstances of her parents (absent characters for most of the novel) impede on her idyllic life, and she must go ‘down into the great mysterious world they had talked so much of, to take her part in the joy and the labour and the sorrow of it.’ (160)
Jack Beasley comments that the novel ‘is more a story about children for adults, than for children themselves’ (A Gallop of Fire, 31), and I agree with him. Its achievement lies in its evocation of the enchanted world of a child’s mind, which is not necessarily something a child can appreciate – only adults in retrospect; it reminds me in this respect of Randolph Stow’s Merry Go Round in the Sea. Early in Wild Oats, Han comes across a cave which amazes her:
Han went to school the next day. But the smell of the hills was in her nose: it was like a taste in her mouth. Memory of the cave haunted her. She had a mind-picture of the great underground room, so vast and deep that, leaning over the edge, she could not see how far it went, only the bones glimmering on the floor in the darkness. (31)
A children’s novel would require that there really be a human skeleton to discover at the bottom of the cave, or at least that some great adventure occur there. Yet Wild Oats evokes the gap between our childhood expectations of adventure gained from stories, and the reality that adventure is more a state of mind.