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she was writing in a different time and era and can’t be held to account for a mindset that is now, hopefully, clearly outdated, I found Coonardoo a compelling tale.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