Balance: The Intersection of Race, Sexuality, and Gender in Katharine Susannah Prichard's Coonardoo
Katherine Susannah Prichard, in her novel Coonardoo, portrays the relationship between an Aboriginal woman, Coonardoo, who resides on a pastoral property that is her traditional land, and her white master. Thought to be extremely liberal when first published in 1929[footnoteRef:1], the story seems to encompass Prichard's own view that whites have a duty to care for their Aborigines and treat them well, and she demonstrates what happens when whites abandon this duty.[footnoteRef:2] Prichard moves beyond this, however, as she plays with the intersection between race, gender, and sexuality to show not only white man's effect on the Aborigines and the land during this time, but also the effect of the untamed land on white man.[footnoteRef:3] The characters that thrive in the wild North-West of Australia during this time are the characters that allow their primal, passionate instincts to control them, while the characters that are unhappy at the oupost Wytaliba are the ones that attempt to retain white thinking and culture. Prichard uses the characters in the story to show how a balance is needed to survive. [1: The story scandalized readers with its portrayal of a love-relationship between a white man and an Aboriginal woman. Yoni Ryan. Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Prichard. Melbourne: Department of Discussion Programs, Council of Adult Education, 1986. At pg.1] [2: Larissa Behrendt, Law Stories and Life Stories: Aboriginal women, the law and Australian society, University of South Australia Lecture, 2004, available at http://www.unisa.edu.au/staffdev/women/cblectures/speech2004.asp] [3: I refer to "white man" and "whites" to signify white culture and the Caucasian race.]
II. THE WOMEN
One of the most obvious ways that Prichard plays with race and gender is through the character Mrs. Bessie, who runs Wytaliba in the beginning of the story. Mrs. Bessie is called "Mumae" by the natives, a twist on "Mummy" (Mother), and "Father" in their own language. She is both a mother and a father figure, as the natives respect her and obey her and her management of the land. When Hugh, her son returns, she curtails her masculine qualities a bit, though "so manly his mother seemed to Hugh, yet as fresh and sprightly as a young girl."[footnoteRef:4] She begins to only wear dresses and skirts, and leaves the management of the land to her son. And she begins to waste away, eventually getting cancer and dying. Mumae thrived by finding a balance between her masculine and feminine qualities in the wild of Australia; only when she left the country and left the reign of the land to her son did she suffer and eventually die. In the harsh reality of the Bush, Prichard shows that women needed to take on more masculine qualities in order to survive. [4: Coonardoo, pg. 54-55. ]
Prichard portrays characters that are ill-suited to the wild land of Wytaliba, and how they cannot survive there without changing their mentality. Jessica, Hugh's fiancee, is one such example. She is described as "a slight pretty creature in a white frock sprigged with little flowers."[footnoteRef:5] She is delicate, and not suited for life in the Bush. Mrs. Bessie realizes this, and thinks of her as a weakling and hopes her son does not marry the girl. Jessica is preoccupied with playing the piano, refinery, and ultimately decides that she hates life in the Bush and cannot ever Hugh. [5: Coonardoo 34]
Mollie is another character that is ill-suited for the Bush, though at first it appears that she could be. Hugh picks her as a wife because she appears to be a solid, hardworking woman who could become accustomed to life at Wytaliba. She is described as looking like a parakeet, indicating that she has some characteristics of a wild animal, though tamed. She comes to Wytaliba with flowered clothing that the Aboriginal women admire, thinking that the fruit and flowers on the print were real. But Mollie attempts to bring the white man's ways to the estate. She asks the slaves to call her "Ma'am," and works them harder than they are accustomed to. She is pleased with the stores of supplies, and attempts to bring order and a sense of discipline to the land. At first it appears that she thrives, bearing children and generally getting along. But then she becomes dissatisfied with the heat. She seems to be only a baby-making machine, and declares that she no longer will bear anymore children. Her sexuality is looked upon only as a way to procreate. She has no innate passions or sexuality, and ultimately ends up leaving because she turns into a shrewd harpy. Prichard uses the character of Mollie to show what happened to whites who attempted to come in and change the native ways in an abrupt fashion.
Phyllis, on the other hand, is a character tips the balance in the masculine direction too far, to her detriment. After being away in cities with her mother for several years, Phyllis returns to Wytaliba to be with her father Hugh. She wants "to be taken seriously as Hugh's right-hand man"[footnoteRef:6] She goes out with the men to brand the cattle for weeks at a time, riding, wearing "men's trousers" and even "Hugh was beginning to forget she was a girl. She took her watch with the men…"[footnoteRef:7] She is happy "to be sex-free; to be living the rough hard way of men, with a sense of independence and exhilaration in the courage and skill required for the work she was doing."[footnoteRef:8] But all this takes a toll on her, and she becomes sick with blight. She "began to flag in her stride, and lost weight on the hard salt rations which they ate, moving cattle."[footnoteRef:9] She cannot keep up with the hard and rough life, and needs a rest. She also begins to notice Bill Gale as a love interest. At first she is annoyed and concerned by her interest: "Phyllis let him see clearly she did not wish to be regarded as a young woman who might be laid siege to and courted."[footnoteRef:10] But ultimately, she does fall in love with Bill Gale, wearing dresses more and more often, finding her passions and sexuality stirred. She finds a balance which regains her health and happiness, indicating that this balance of gender and sexuality is needed to survive in the Bush. [6: Katherine Susannah Prichard, Coonardoo, A&R Classics, 1973, pg. 166.] [7: Id. At 162.] [8: Id. ] [9: Id. At 172.] [10: Id. At 164.]
Coonardoo embodies Prichard's belief in the ways the white man affected the Aborigines and the land. Coonardoo is different from the other native women. She has fair hair, and learns the ways of the white people when she is taken in as Mumae's favorite and a house-servant. In the household, she is quiet, and very different from how she is in her native surroundings.
At the house, in her blue gina-gina, Coonardoo was silent and reserved. She went about her work in a slow, dignified way, without approaching in the least familiarity. But riding together, on the plains and in the ranges, as they often did, it was quite different. Coonardoo in her faded dungaree trousers and an old shirt, naked feet in the stirrups, her hair still fair and glintiting in the sun, was the most fascinating companion. She laughed her merry girlish rippling laughter, and talked about trees and land-marks they passed, telling Phyllis stories of Hugh when he was a boy. [footnoteRef:11] [11: Cooonardoo 166.]
She is changed, taken out of nature and the wild. She has a deep adoration for her masters, and serves them. Ann McGrath notes that Coonardoo emphasizes the "underlying loyalty and powerful reciprocation on the part of the white [matriarch and patriarch] and the Aboriginal servant."[footnoteRef:12] But with her people, she is more of a master, although being a woman, her husband still comes first. [12: Ann McGrath, Modern Stone-Age Slavery: Images of Aboriginal Labour and Sexuality, Labour History, No. 69, Aboriginal Workers (Nov. 1995), at 39.]
Humble and untiring at the house, Coonardoo in the uloo was a different person. She ruled the camp with an intelligence and authority which were unquestioned, although she was wise enough never to let it be seen or guessed she ruled except through Wareida. As the person with influence over Hugh and Mollie she was obeyed; her requests were attended to. Had she not the giving of flour and sugar, issues of namery and tuckerdoo in her keeping?[footnoteRef:13] [13: Id. At 130.]
But even taken out of her surroundings and educated in the ways of white men and women, Coonardoo cannot control her sexuality and innate passions.[footnoteRef:14] She is confused why Hugh does not have sex with her even though he takes her into the house and makes his/her woman. Hugh attempts to suppress this wildness and sexuality by not acting on his passions and lust towards her. Coonardoo's untamed sexuality is underscored in the scene between her and Sam…