Coonardoo by Katharine Susannah Prichard - commentary by Faye Lawrence

I have just returned from a trip to the Nothern Territory where I had nine days visiting dramatically beautiful and highly significant cultural sites in Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. I re-read "Coonardoo" as my evening reading whilst I was travelling around this region which was both a poignant and poetically apposite experience to add to the magnificence of the terrain and the cultural intensity of the country. The novel is set in Northern Western Australia however the countryside is sufficiently similar to be evocative of the country I was in.

Coonardoo is the Aboriginal heroine of the story which was first published in 1929. It is a tragedy and a love story. The love story is particularly remarkable because it was between an Aboiginal woman and a white cattle station owner. As is often mentioned, the fact of sex between Aboriginal women and white men was not unusual in the remote parts of Australia at that time but a story of actual love was daring in the extreme and caused somewhat of a scandal.

Katharine Prichard was writing of her time as any writer would be but she was stretching the imaginitative limitations at the same time. The passages where the love between the two is explored are few in the book but they are strong and touching. Throughout the book we are constantly reminded of the womanly affection and love which Coonardoo has for Hugh - the station owner - whilst the love Hugh has for Coonardoo has to be explained in the context of his (and white Australias) limited understanding of the Aboriginal society. Hugh cannot entirely face the fact of his deep affection until towards the end of the novel. Hugh's morality, meaning that he will not live in partnership with an Aboriginal woman, is explored warts and all by Prichard. Hugh is a decent man by the standard of the day , kindly and respectful to his Aboriginal indentured workers which in turn adds to the poignancy of the situation. Coonardoo is a tragic victim as much of his decency as of the overall racism , ignorance and roughness of the remote country. An excellent essay on the novel "Coonardoo" by Drusilla Modjeska for the 1990 edition outlines this thesis very well and is recommended.

The novel is remarkable on several other levels - we are treated to poetic descriptions by Prichard continually . She paints clear exciting pictures of the scenery, the birdlife and the atmosphere. One description of heat in this country shows off her wonderful writing and observation and I quote from Chapter 19. "The air, at a little distance, palpitated, thrown off from the stones in minute atoms, visible one moment, flown to invisibility the next. Weaving with the sun for shuttle. the air spun heat which was suffocating." and then a little later in the paragraph "And stillness, a breathless heaviness, drowsed the senses, brain and body, as if that mythological snake the blacks believed in, a rock python, silvery grey, black and brown, sliding down from hills of the sky, were puttting the opiate of his breath into the air, folding you round and round, squeezing the life out of you"

This one example of her powerful descriptive writing also serves to bring out a couple of other strong points about the work. Namely that it is of its time - mention of "blacks" collectively and other terms are stated simply and leave a modern day Australian somewhat shocked. But along with this there is the honest attempt to give the Aboriginal way of life as she saw it and researched it a dignified and very significant part in the story. It is a view from "the homestead verandah" of inter-relationships of the two cultures but it is a very empathetic and intelligent one. Prichard lived at Turee station in the Kimberleys for several months with some family friends and was inspred by her time there .She had known very little of Aboriginal culture or Station life before this . She had gone there from Perth to have quiet time to finish "Haxbys Circus" but stumbled upon this incredibly rich aspect of life in Australia which provided her with the background for this inspired, imaginative work. The detail she absorbed of Station life, white Australian prejudices and ignorance , Aboriginal life, storyline and language, droving and horsebreaking etc are woven into the story with great skill.

The characterisations in this two culture novel are inevitably uneven. We know a lot about Coonardoo but we cant know her thoughts very well - because the author will not have her think like a white woman . There is therefore an uneveness in the portrayals of the main Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal characters . The Aboriginal characters other than Coonardoo are depicted by their actions set in cultural patterns . In this context they are honestly drawn and illuminate the Aboriginal tapestry of this story and are vital to the richness of it. However they are not characters perhaps in the usual novelistic sense.

Of the white characters , Hugh is somewhat problematic but his mother , Mumae, who valiantly worked the beloved catlle and horse station, "Wytaliba" whilst Hugh was away at school hovers over the story even after her death. Mumae is portrayed as an astute "verandah" observer - a decent hard working woman of the outback who treated her Aboriginal workers (indentured who work for food only ) with kindness but firmness as if they were children . She is pivotal to our understanding of where the story is going. In death she hovers ,it is believed ,over all in the guise of white cockatoos. Other white characters are intriguing - Sam Geary - awful but honest, Cock-eyed Bob, Saul, Hugh's wife Mollie who is well drawn, Phyllis, Hugh's Kimberley loving daughter - all add to the many dimensions of this fine and highly readable. novel.

I recommend this fine novel by a writer of rare sensitivity for her time who is , I think , being rediscovered. She is one of those very special women writers who have contributed so much to the Australian cannon by their sensitivity to the country and people and by their rich talent.


Anonymous said...

There is a chapter entitled "The un-loving of Coonardoo" at

Anonymous said...

Katharine Susannah Prichard's papers are held in the National Library of Australia's collection

Faye said...

Thank you to Anonymous for the reference to the Trojan Press essay . I have just read it and would recommend it to anyone who wants more of the story before reading Coonardoo. An excellent summary and analysis of several of the themes in this outstanding book. it brings out many special points - not the least being that the main character in this book is the amazing lanscape and ,as I would add, the thrilling description and depiction which Prichard gives us of the country. it does stay with you.

John Kennedy said...

Thank you for encouraging me to re-read this novel for the first time in well over thirty years, Faye. I think you give a very fair assessment. It is a book of its times, as you say, and its sympathetic view of Aboriginals and their world is not one many of us could readily accept today. But is is a moving novel which portrays its world vividly and evocatively.

I found the ending poignant and moving, though there is perhaps a touch of sentimentality.

Faye said...

Dear John,
Thank you for your comment - yes I am very glad I read it again and , though of its time, it has remained with me as a strong and honest work which can still give one some goose bumps.
One of those works which reminds me of the power of the written word and makes me thankful for peolle working away at writing like this.