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Coonardoo (1929)

por Katharine Susannah Prichard

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2104131,333 (3.52)22
A powerful novel about race that's become a classic of Australian literature. A tough, uncompromising novel about the difficult love between a white man and a black woman. Coonardoo is the moving story of a young Aboriginal woman trained from childhood to be the housekeeper at Wytaliba station and, as such, destined to look after its owner, Hugh Watt. the love between Coonardoo and Hugh, which so shocked its readers when the book was first published in 1929, is never acknowledged and so, degraded and twisted in on itself, destroys not only Coonardoo, but also a community which was once peaceful. this frank and daring novel set on the edge of the desert still raises difficult questions about the history of contact between black and white, and its representation in Australian writing.… (mais)
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The other reviews on here speak to the complexity of this work. Written by an avowed socialist, and one of the first Australian novels to treat our Indigenous people as human individuals, not to mention a stunningly sexual and honest work for its time, and a work that continues a strong trend of complex female characters in Aussie literature, Coonardoo is - to my mind - still an important part of Australia's literary history. To think only 30 years earlier the idea of "serious literature" in the country was a laugh, and the only true poignancy came from the (admittedly fantastic) stories of Steele Rudd and Henry Lawson.

At the same time, this book is incredibly challenging 90 years after its publication. In retrospect the approach to Aboriginal life is, as others have said, "animalistic". Pritchard was looking through colonial eyes, perhaps inevitably. The gender politics are also uncomfortable now, and the power dynamics unsettling. Anyway, that's all been said elsewhere in some lovely reviews by Goodreads folk. Coonardoo was a trailblazer for its time, and that's probably what remains important about it. ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 21, 2024 |
Coonardoo, set on a remote cattle station in north-western Australia, tackles the already sensitive topic of a relationship between a white Australian man and an aboriginal woman. But what really shocked contemporary readers was that Prichard presents the relationship between Hugh and Coonardoo, who have known each other all their lives and are deeply rooted in the land at Wytaliba, as the loving, meaningful and — mostly — platonic one that drives the whole plot, whilst Hugh’s marriage to the white woman he imports from the coast is every bit as functional and exploitative as the harem of black women and mixed-race children their reprobate neighbour Sam maintains on his property.

Prichard’s well-meaning attempts to show us how the world looks from Coonardoo’s perspective probably wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny in 21st-century terms, but they were quite serious and carefully researched, and clearly well ahead of their time 93 years ago. It’s also interesting how she uses a geographical point-of-view to structure the narrative: we never get more than a few miles from Wytaliba, and follow the characters, white or aboriginal, who happen to be there at the time. Other than that, it’s a fairly conventional realistic novel, full of horses and cattle and Australian weather and all the household business of running a remote farm. ( )
  thorold | May 12, 2022 |
I've departed from my usual practice in reviewing Katharine Susannah Prichard's Coonardoo from 1929: I've read other opinions about it, both before and after reading it.  I also re-read Mairi Neil's post about the play Brumby Innes and its place in the history of Australian drama because Prichard first used the theme of the novel in the play.

I did this additional reading because this work has a contentious place in the history of Australian literature.  Coonardoo is the first detailed representation of Indigeneity in Australian fiction, but the author was not Indigenous herself.  So I've included both Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives in my pre- and post-reading of the work.

While the representation of Indigeneity has changed with the passage of time, and the issue of appropriation is ongoing, this book, written almost a century ago, is the subject of attention and scholarship because it's written by one of our finest writers. Katharine Susannah Prichard makes an appearance in almost all the reference books I have: Australian Classics, by Jane Gleeson-White; the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (Ed. Nicholas José);  the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (Ed. Wilde, Hooten & Andrews), and also in Jean-Francois Vernay’s A Brief Take on the Australian Novel.  Harry Heseltine writes about KSP extensively in The Literature of Australia (Ed. Geoffrey Dutton).

All of these non-Indigenous authorities refer to Coonardoo, but only some of them address issues of racism.  The Oxford Companion says only that the more polished Coonardoo was joint winner of the 1928 Bulletin novel prize and was praised as the first realistic and detailed portrayal of an Aboriginal.  

The Macquarie Anthology, for example, refers to hostile criticism for its portrait of a loving sexual relationship between a young Aboriginal woman and a white man. Heseltine, however, while stating that the creative treatment is neither sociological, nor patronising, but (at least by intention) tragic, goes on to acknowledge, albeit indirectly, prior occupation of the land on which the story takes place.  Refuting the doctrine of terra nullius, he writes:
It is a matter of some interest that what is probably Prichard's most complex attempt at characterisation and her most intensely sustained emotional encounter with her material should be inspired by a member of a race whose dreaming, whose search for identity, was accomplished long before white men came to the Australian continent. ( 'Australian Fiction Since 1920' by Harry Heseltine, in The Literature of Australia (Ed. Geoffrey Dutton, 1964, ISBN 0140700080, my copy is the 1976 revised edition).

However Larissa Behrendt of the Eualeyai/Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay people analyses Coonardoo more harshly in Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling.  At the conclusion of a lengthy chapter, she writes:
Though some may read Coonardoo as a reminder of the loves lost because of racism, the novel is also a reminder of the unacknowledged legacy of colonisation on Aboriginal women: their inability to freely consent to sexual relations with the white men who had the power of life and death over them was fundamentally constrained.  It is also a reminder that, regardless of any good intention, constructed stereotypes of Aboriginal men and women continue to appear and be perpetuated in even so-called 'sympathetic' twenty-first century literature. (Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling, UQP, 2016, ISBN 9780702253904, p.99)

Finally, thanks to Nathan Hobby, whose biography of KSP is published in 2022, I also read Wiradjuri woman Jeanine Leane's 2016 deeply personal response to the novel at Overland. 

So, what do I think about Coonardoo?

The first thing to say is that KSP is a great writer who was nominated for the Nobel Prize because she wrote about important things. Although some of her work is weighed down by her desire to bring issues to the reader's attention, in the fiction which I've read so far, she tackled the big picture issues of her time: poverty, disadvantage, inadequate health care, disability, and working conditions.  (The Oxford Companion tells me that she also wrote about her desire for world peace and nuclear disarmament, and almost all of the commentators mention her commitment to communism.)  The big issue that she tackled in Coonardoo is IMO best expressed by Jane Gleeson-White in Australian Classics:
Katharine Susannah Prichard's novel Coonardoo is the story of an Aboriginal woman, the eponymous Coonardoo, and the struggle of white and Aboriginal Australians to live together and work the vast land of the Kimberley, where their worlds come into intimate contact. (Australian Classics, Allen & Unwin, 2007, ISBN 9781741753417, p106.)

That intimate contact is a story of love thwarted by denial, prejudice and racism.  Coonardoo is an unpaid station hand in the Kimberley, alongside Hugh Watt, the son of the station owner.  Narrated from Coonardoo's perspective, Hugh's and that of his mother, the formidable widow Bessie Watt — the story shows how their love emerged, was frustrated and denied, was consummated, and then denied again.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2021/01/17/coonardoo-by-katharine-susannah-prichard/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Apr 28, 2022 |
This is an intensely unpleasant book to read, but there's lots to talk about regarding it, so bare with me.

So, I came across this book because I realised I knew almost nothing about Australian literature, and my mum agreed that it was pretty obscure before crying, "Oh! But you know, at the start of the twentieth century there was a whole bunch of socialist women writers, Marxists, feminists, I think you'd really like them." She gave me an old textbook of hers that outlined some of these writers, and Katharine Susannah Prichard was one. The critic writing the textbook really didn't like her work, describing it as ruined by her "crude Marxism" (in later years she actually supported the Soviet Union's repression of artists and writers, so I could see how her crude Stalinism might sully her work), but he conceded that Coonardoo was a classic.

It was first published as a serial in The Bulletin in 1928, and was extremely controversial because (by the standards of the day) it humanised Aboriginal people, rather than conforming to the prevailing idea that they were pests to be more or less exterminated. As a result, Prichard (who was white, I should make clear) had trouble getting the book published with publishers recognising that while such a controversial book would make them a tidy profit, it'd offend so many comfortably racist white people that they were uneasy about it. Evidently the book was published, though.

This is more or less what I gleaned before reading the novel, and since I was coming it at with that background, it was really disappointing.

Perhaps it was anti-racist for 1928, but by modern standards it really isn't. In Prichard's own introduction to the book, she echoes Engels in probably the most problematic things he ever said, describing Aboriginal people as primitive, unevolved versions of Europeans. She's clearly sympathetic to them, but that doesn't excuse the way she writes them, as "noble savages". At some points, she even outright refers to them as animals, for instance describing Coonardoo's eyes as "the bright beautiful eyes of a wild animal in their thick yellowy whites". It's not exactly that she's ignorant, either – the book demonstrates that she was familiar with the language Aboriginal people in the area spoke, as well as with their traditions, spiritual beliefs and so on (I can't vouch for how complete her understanding is though, only that she knew a lot and made use of it). It's that she's more of an ethnographer, trying to show off this "exotic" type of human – objectifying them, not treating them as subjects. This made me uncomfortable throughout the book.

Despite being the titular character, Coonardoo isn't really the main character of the book; that would be Hugh Watt, the white man who owns this cattle station, Wytaliba. And despite the blurb describing their relationship as one of "love", it isn't. For Hugh, he (and his mother before him) are disgusted by the sexual exploitation of black women by white men, and he's determined not to be like that, but he becomes so fucking possessive over Coonardoo anyway that he does something far worse. Even if he didn't, possessiveness is not love. As for Coonardoo, her characterisation is so awkward it's hard to know what to say. She seems to objectify herself; she's been raised from childhood to be a faithful, unpaid servant, and she is. She looks after Hugh, dotes on him, allows him to have sex with her when his mother's death leaves him deeply depressed. Later in the novel, he "claims her as his woman" (i.e. asks her to sleep in the house) so that Sam Geary (owner of a neighbouring cattle station, who represents the sexually exploitative white man the Watts despise) won't get her, and she's bewildered – and, it's later revealed, hurt – that he won't have sex with her the way that men do with "their" women. This is awkwardly written, though; she spends more time "confused" than she does visibly upset about it. From the little we get her thoughts, her concerns are always how best to serve Hugh, and I don't see this as "being in love"; this is submitting to her servitude.

To the extent that they have a relationship, it is totally that of dominator and dominated. I don't think a relationship between a white cattle station owner and his Aboriginal domestic servant could be anything else. They're so unequal (and don't even speak to each other all that much) that you could never call this a love story; a story of a dark and twisted one-time sexual relationship, perhaps.

The ending of the novel is the worst part of it. Sam Geary, who's been lusting after Coonardoo all novel long, turns up at Wytaliba unannounced and rapes her. Once Hugh finds out, he beats Coonardoo to a pulp and throws her into the campfire, because apparently she betrayed him by getting raped. He then expels her from "his property", and she stays away – not because she thinks it's a good idea to avoid Hugh if this is how he'll treat her, but because she wants to follow his wishes, as she's always done. This part of the book talks about how she doesn't understand how she displeased him, and that kind of thing – she blames herself, just as he blames her. It's distressing.

I do think that Prichard did a good job with the characterisation of the white people, particularly the white women. Some of them were extremely unlikeable, but their characters made sense (with the possible exception of Hugh). They were also, for the most part, very different from one another (which, for instance, the Aboriginal characters were not, although they did at least have proper names). The novel depicts a whole range of different types of racism that white Australians in the early twentieth century could be instilled with. It also depicts a lot of different kinds of women, from working-class women who betray their roots and become obnoxious wealthy socialites, to women who want to escape being stifled by bourgeois expectations and be free. The parts of the book that focus on these themes are much less uncomfortable.

So, to wrap up this lengthy review… this book is very much a product of the time and place it was written in. Prichard may have been progressive for that context, but for ours, this book is a painful read. I couldn't say I recommend it, but if you have particular interests that this aligns with, then go for it. ( )
  Jayeless | May 27, 2020 |
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A powerful novel about race that's become a classic of Australian literature. A tough, uncompromising novel about the difficult love between a white man and a black woman. Coonardoo is the moving story of a young Aboriginal woman trained from childhood to be the housekeeper at Wytaliba station and, as such, destined to look after its owner, Hugh Watt. the love between Coonardoo and Hugh, which so shocked its readers when the book was first published in 1929, is never acknowledged and so, degraded and twisted in on itself, destroys not only Coonardoo, but also a community which was once peaceful. this frank and daring novel set on the edge of the desert still raises difficult questions about the history of contact between black and white, and its representation in Australian writing.

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