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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.
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 workbut he conceded that Coonardoo It was first published as a serial in The Bulletin inand 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 forbut 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. 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. 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. 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.
According to the introductory essay by Drusilla Modjeska, KSP was sojourning in the Kimberley in to finish her novel Haxby's Circus when she came into contact with Aboriginal Australia in the North-West and what would become an important source for her writing.
It is a remarkably brave and honest novel not just for its time but still proves confronting and heartbreaking reading even today.
Modjeska's essay reminds us that there had been a reprisal massacre at Onmalmeri in the Kimberley in and another at Coniston in The highly detailed and utterly convincing naturalism of the writing about life and work on a cattle station makes a persuasive context for KSP's revelations about relations between the white settlers and the indigenous population in the Kimberley largely unknown to most Australians.
The beauty of the writing particularly KSP's descriptions of landscape, weather, light and skies is also irresistibly seductive and vivid. What is striking about this novel is the clear-eyed and yet nuanced view of those relations.Welcome to all of you this afternoon. Today I would like to discuss the concepts of justice which are explored in the novel “Coonardoo” by Katherine Susannah Prichard and in the movie “Remember the Titans” directed by Boaz Yakin.
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