A&R Classics, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Katharine Susannah Prichard, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Coonardoo’ by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Fiction – paperback; A&R Classics; 300 pages; 2012.

I came to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s 1929 novel Coonardoo with some trepidation. It’s an Australian classic, of course, and is billed as the first Australian novel to feature a relationship between a white man and an Aboriginal woman. It sparked public outrage on publication because of this. Almost a century later it still makes for uncomfortable reading — but not necessarily for the reasons that upset people in the past.

We all know that white men exploited Aboriginal women for their own sexual gratification. We also know that love doesn’t abide by class and race structures; that it is entirely normal for white people to fall in love with black people and vice versa. But the story is written through an entirely white lens and uses racist language that is unacceptable now.

And while I can see that Prichard’s heart is in the right place — she clearly wanted to pen a sympathetic portrait of Aboriginal people — it’s hard to ignore her objectification of their “exoticness”. Indeed, in her own foreword to the novel, Prichard reveals her ethnographer’s card, so to speak, by suggesting Aboriginal people were on the “lower rungs” of the “evolutional ladder”.

Bearing this in mind, and realising that she was writing in a different time and era and can’t be held to account for a mindset that is now, hopefully, clearly outdated, I found Coonardoo a compelling tale.

Life on a cattle station

It is a fascinating portrait of life on a cattle station in Western Australia’s remote northwest. It is also an insightful look at the social mores and manners of the early 20th century and the ways in which the long arm of colonisation impacted the lives of Aboriginal women.

I was gripped by its beautiful, filmic prose — Prichard’s descriptions of landscapes are gorgeously rich and vivid — and the tragic, heartbreaking arc of the storyline that demonstrates the weakness and cruelty in the hearts of even the most decent of human beings.

The moon, rising over the dark edge of the plains, was large as a dray-wheel, red-gold. It moved through a sky clear green with the glimmer of still water, extinguishing the stars, chasing them to the depths of the high dark. The stock-yards, sheds and windmills were clear in the moonlight; corrugated-iron roofs and fans of the windmill had a white radiance. Huts of the blacks, just visible, were low mounds against the earth near the creek; their camp-fires, red jewels in the distance. A subdued murmur and drift of singing, clicking of kylies [a light boomerang] came from them.

But despite the story being framed around an Aboriginal woman, the titular Coonardoo, who is trained from childhood to be the housekeeper at Wytaliba station, it is really about the station owner, Hugh Watt, who is roughly the same age. Hughie, or “Youie” as he is often called, played with Coonardoo as a child before being sent away to boarding school in Perth.

The narrative traces the arc of his life, from childhood to old age, showing his struggles and minor triumphs, the heartbreak of two failed relationships with white women, the grief that engulfs him after the death of his mother, Bess, the much-respected widow who ran the station single-handedly for decades, and his ongoing battles with his polygamist neighbour, Sam Geary, who boasts of the Aboriginal women he uses for his own sexual gratification.

And then there is the personal relationship he has with Coonardoo, a woman he loves but holds at a distance, even though it’s clear that both of them have feelings for one another.

“Coonardoo had been the one sure thing in his life when his mother went out of it. He had grasped her. She was a stake, something to hang on to. He had to remind himself of her dark skin and race. Hugh had never been able to think of Coonardoo as alien to himself. She was the old playmate; a force in the background of his life, silent and absolute. Something primitive, fundamental, nearer than he to the source of things: the well in the shadows.

It’s this denial of a joyful matrimonial partnership, of even allowing Coonardoo a voice, that turns Hugh bitter, a denial that manifests itself in one shocking outburst of brutality that puts paid to any future happiness.

A white man’s sorrow

At its most basic, Coonardoo is a tale about a white man’s sorrow and disappointment, about his failure to tame the land and to find happiness in family and romantic relationships, to be true to himself, but the narrative is underscored by deeper issues — hints of Aboriginal massacres, dispossession and exploitation.

“The blacks are like that, I reck’n,” Saul agreed. “They never kill for sport — only for food or vengeance. I’ve always treated ’em fair and honest, let their women alone — and never had any trouble with ’em. […] And the blacks has plenty of reason for vengeance, Youie. Thirty years I’ve been in this country, and there’s things I’ve seen… No black ever did to a white man what white men have done to the blacks.”

And while Hugh’s attitude towards the Aboriginals who work on his land could be said to be kind and sympathetic by the standards of the time in which it was written, it’s hard not to wince at the patronising nature of much of what he says and does today. The following statement, for instance, is racist (and sexist), which makes for uncomfortable reading:

“But these people are not servants,” Hugh told her, “not in the ordinary way. We don’t pay them, except in food, tobacco, clothing. Treat them generously, feed them well, give them a bit of pain-killer or a dose of castor oil when they’ve got a bingee ache, and they’ll do anything in the world for you. But you must never work them too hard — specially the gins [derogatory term for an Aboriginal woman]. They’re not made for hard work, can’t stand it. Look at their little hands. Coonardoo’s — I’ve never seen any woman with as pretty little hands as Coonardoo’s.”

Prichard, unfortunately, is hampered by her inability to truly know what it was like to be indigenous. She’s constrained by her own prejudices, privilege and experiences. In today’s language, we would say this was not her story to tell.

But for all its failings, Coonardoo is an important book both in terms of the Australian literary canon and Australian history. I am glad to have made its acquaintance.

Please also see Lisa’s thoughtful and considered response to this novel, for she has taken the time to put it into context by reading other people’s opinions about it.

Because the author spent a large chunk of her life in Western Australia (she moved to Greenmount, on the edge of the Darling Scarp, in 1920, where she lived until her death in 1969, aged 85), this book qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

This is also my 26th book for #AWW2021. 

17 thoughts on “‘Coonardoo’ by Katharine Susannah Prichard”

  1. A great review Kim. I agree with you entirely that “it is really about the station owner, Hugh Watt”. He takes Coonardoo up and then abandons her. I read this for my degree 15 years or so ago but have never converted my write-up into a review.
    I hope you don’t mind if I point out that fellow blogger (and Perth-ite) Nathan Hobby has just completed his PhD writing a biography of KSP which will be out 3 May 2022. There are reviews of every KSP novel on nathanhobby.com (I forget what he says about Coonardoo)

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    1. Thanks Bill. Tried to write about this one cautiously. I did actually enjoy it a lot but my pesky 21st century mindset kept hassling me and finding fault with views and attitudes. But the actual prose was sublime.

      And no worries about mentioning Nathan’s book. I follow him on Twitter so have followed the journey he’s been on writing it. I hope he has a big launch and that it’s not scuppered by covid. Goodness knows what the world / life in WA will be like in May.

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  2. Thanks for the mention, Kim, and good on you for tackling this one, I know the anxiety well. And Bill’scomment has provided us with the release date for Nathan’s bio!!

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    1. Thanks, Lisa. It’s not a difficult book to read but it is a difficult book to write about.

      Surprised you didn’t know about Nathan’s release date… I was aware it was after Easter. I must have seen a tweet about it at some point.

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  3. Not being Australian, I have limited knowledge of the canon of Australian literature, so thank you for reviewing this book Kim. I found your and Lisa’s reviews very interesting. I particularly liked what Lisa says about the language in the book, normal then, offensive now: “It is a persistent reminder that this book demands to be read in context and that the issues within it be addressed.”

    I’m not American, either, but I have read a lot more American literature than I have Australian (it’s a personal bugbear of mine that American writers are more readily accessible to UK readers than Australian ones). Flannery O’Connor is the closest touch point I have to KSP. She wrote about the race divide in Georgia, firmly on the side of African Americans but from a white perspective bound up in contemporary language and attitudes. I have noticed that over the couple of decades that I’ve read and re-read her books, it’s increasingly hard to read that language. As a white person, I feel strongly that context for and learning from contemporary expression of racism in the past is necessary, because otherwise it feels like sweeping things under the carpet. Of course, if I were Black, I would undoubtedly feel differently.

    I have so far only read one book by an Aboriginal writer – Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby. It was an eye-opener and successfully disrupted my British presumptions about Australian society. I’ve got Claire G Coleman’s Terra Nullius on my To Read pile, and have a couple of Kim Scott books on my wishlist. This review has reminded me that I want to read them.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jan.

      When I lived in the UK it frustrated me no end that so many Australian books I saw reviewed on Australian blogs never got released elsewhere. Most publishers only ever buy Aus/NZ publishing rights. Tim Winton writes about this in one of his essays / memoirs – something along the lines of his UK publisher told him to tone down the “Australianness” of his work because it would never sell!!! And yet that is what makes him who he is today… one of our most successful international writers. People read his work for that “Australianness”.

      But anyway, this is why whenever I came home to see my parent (every two years or so) I would return to London with a suitcase full of books! Having repatriated it is such a delight to be able to walk into a bookstore and see it filled to the brim with Australian novels! After more than two years that novelty still hasn’t worn off.

      Do read the Kim Scott books … they are challenging but so good. My post about The Books that Made Us TV show has an indigenous reading list https://readingmattersblog.com/2021/12/08/books-that-made-us-episode-three/ that you might find helpful. Australian indigenous literature is really coming into its own right now.., so many great writers being published… not sure how readily available they are in the UK but you will be able to find Tara June Winch pretty easily. Good luck!

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      1. “Australianness” us what I like about the Australian writers whose books I’ve read. What a bizarre bit of advice.

        Thank you for the link to your post with the reading list, too. I’ll make good use of that.

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        1. Yes, I’m getting frustrated by this, too, with Australian and Indigenous Canadian writers, as well. You can sometimes get expensive e-books but when they’re important like this I prefer to have print copies.

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    1. I think it’s important to read these kinds of books so we can see the journey we, as a society, have been on and to appreciate how attitudes and views have changed. But Australia still has a massive problem owning up to its black history, but even in my 20 years away (living in UK and then repatriating in June 2019), it is noticeable that efforts are being made to acknowledge and embrace Aboriginal culture and people. There’s just an awful long way to go though…

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  4. B21 has asked me on the past why I would even bother to read old books that use sexist/racist language and I give him all the reasons that you and Lisa have outlined. I also try to explain to him that the views he considers to be modern (and therefore ‘right-minded’) now, will be considered outdated and old fashioned and maybe even wrong by his grand children.

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  5. A careful review which is obviously much appreciated – and I’ll add my appreciation, too. It’s difficult, even early and mid-20th century domestic British women writers will often throw in a racial or anti-Semitic slur that makes one wince now, but I don’t think they should be excised (though some are beyond the pale and there is always room for an explanatory footnote in my opinion). The prose does sound lovely in this, and it is possible to read such works with an eye on their times, I think, which you prove.

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    1. It’s an entertaining read and enlightened for the times in which it was written, but I think it’s important to read with a critical — not a condemning — eye. I recently read George Orwell’s Burmese Days which has racist overtones too and written at a similar time as KSP’s novel, and I know when I eventually get around to reviewing it I will have to be careful about what I say… it’s a brilliant book but the characters in it behave abhorrently toward people with different skin colour to them.

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