by Marcie|Buried in Print
Marcie McCauley is a Canadian writer and lit.blogger who shares our interest in early women’s writing and the ongoing effect on First Nations peoples of white settler colonisation. Here she reviews Prichard’s Goldfields trilogy: The Roaring Nineties (1946), Golden Miles (1948), and Winged Seeds (1950).
Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Goldfields trilogy—about life in and around gold mining in Western Australia, between the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries—is essential reading for today’s global citizens.
When I began reading this, I expected KSP would consider the historic strides that women and the working class took towards equality, and how those efforts served as foundations for present-day realities – like Elizabeth Gaskell’s or Winifred Holtby’s classics which focused on aspects of women’s lives traditionally overlooked in literature, and linked the personal with the political. I expected KSP’s trilogy would read as an important saga for its time. Instead, I found her narrative to be important for our time.
In her introduction to the first volume, KSP declares her intent to portray the “lives of several people, but to give also the story of an industry”. The personal and political struggles of settler and Indigenous characters, against the backdrop of colonial authority and corporate exploitation in the mining industry, remain relevant today. She moves readers from the time when mining was about prospecting for gold—“the ups and downs, rushes and slumps, dust storms and mirages of their life on the fields”—to the time when mining was also about processing and creating markets for by-products, when “mining was as rotten a game as war”.
This rotten game still appears regularly in today’s media, from foreign-operated mines in Sudan “where fortunes spring from desert-hewn rock” to Ukraine miners, working in “aging coal mines”, where multiple deaths continue to occur, to the recent deaths in the Amazon of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira following their opposition to illegal mining.
KSP was writing more than seventy years ago, observing the early days of extractivism, of entrenched exploitative patterns wherein “the many would always be smashed and battered beneath [the mining industry’s] giant treads”; these patterns still hold. Beyond the page, local communities and landscapes continue to be devastated, accidents and deaths suffered by workers whose well-being is secondary to corporate profit margins continue to mount, and violence perpetrated against Indigenous land-defenders and their allies is ongoing.
In 1930, KSP and her husband followed the trail of a gold rush to Larkinville, in Western Australia, where this “trilogy unwound every night before I could sleep”, where she first conceived of Sally and Dinny as composite characters. (From KSP’s 1968 essay, “Some Perceptions and Aspirations”, which Drusilla Modjeska quotes in her Introductions to the Virago Modern Classic reprints).
Then, when she began to write over a decade later, a third character took shape—Kalgoorla—an Indigenous woman, whose youth and old age link the trilogy’s beginning and ending.
The Roaring Nineties: A History of the Goldfields of Western Australia (1946) is rooted in the importance of storytelling, fuelled by memory. Readers meet the central characters nearly immediately: Dinny, a man for whom there’s “nothing…better than yarning about the early days”; then Sally, a “grand little woman”, who offers Dinny £5 in exchange for his assisting her husband, Morris on the journey to the new find at Coolgardie. Morris’s upper class upbringing had prepared him to “track and work natives”, but he would need a mate if he was to live rough.
The novel’s first chapter also secures the narrative in a broader sense, with a scene described as Kalgoorla would have experienced it, a scene which underscores her “fear and hatred of white men”, which establishes the extractivist and exploitative colonial behaviours that fuel the mining industry and fundamentally impact all the characters’ lives.
Readers witness life in Southern Cross, then as new finds are made further east, Coolgardie (Indigenous name Cookardie) and Hannans/Kalgoorlie; and witness the gold rush era’s impact on environments: first, encampments with tents and a watering hole; next, streets with pubs; then, eventually, ten pubs and a hotel with fresh fruit.
Relatively homogeneous Australian/British societies expanded to include Frenchmen, Germans, Swedes, Danes, Poles, Russian exiles, English and Irish rebels, Cockneys and Scots, “brummy would-be Americans” and actual Americans from California or Mexico, Jews, and Afghans (whose camels and rituals were routinely blamed when something went awry with the watering holes).
Midway through, speaking of a boarding house, Sally observes that “most of the guests were strangers to her, although she had a slight acquaintance with some”. Readers feel something like that, too, as the cast of characters widens. Beyond the key figures, minor characters add colour and dimension to the novel’s population: from Cracker Jack and Pug Charley [R90s] to Driver Hearne [GM] and Mrs. Eli Nancarrow [WS], KSP intends to both entertain and inform her readers.
A later chapter is devoted to a family funeral, where details are employed in service of overarching themes: the workers’ community spirit, similarities and differences in class and status in this colonial setting, financial hardship and instability, and the health risks of working underground.
The chronicle of shifting socioeconomic realities will satisfy the curiosity of readers who are intrigued by history and working-class politics, but in the series’ first two volumes, the plotting in characters’ lives is equally engaging.
Modjeska explains that KSP felt driven to write for the same reason that motivated the artist Rodin in his creative work, a desire to “seek to understand the world and make it understood”. Her storytelling twines around political and personal elements and, in the first volume, these developments align neatly. Situations like Sally’s unhappy marriage to Morris or her evolving friendship with Laura—who married a man who left prospecting to manage a mine and represent the overseas companies whose priorities heightened the workers’ vulnerabilities—deftly intertwine political and personal conflicts to fuel the narrative. Sally is a “brown moth” in comparison to her relatively monied friend,
Laura, the “white butterfly”, and “Kalgoorlie emerge from the chrysalis of the old mining camp, and become a city of mining prosperity”: these are transformative times. As an author, KSP assists readers in understanding how conflict develops—whether in a workplace or in a marriage—between spouses who have different expectations of married life which create tension, and between the miners who work underground and the mine management and overseas investors and profiteers, which leads to agitation for workers’ rights. Even a concerned manager cannot substantially improve working conditions underground because to do so would reduce investors’ profits:
“Mr. Brierly had urged on his directors the need for a comprehensive scheme of reorganization, ventilation and timbering. They informed him they were not prepared to embark on any plan which would require such expenditure in the immediate future.”
KSP fleshes out readers’ understanding with sensory details from the everyday lives of women in mining families. Even when the women are not worrying about whether the men are at risk of being arrested, for protesting the erosion of workers’ rights and their compromised health and safety, or whether they will be jailed and convicted, the stress and strain of daily routines in this landscape, under these settlement conditions, is relentless:
“Women like Sally and Marie Robillard cooked and washed for their families, fighting the red dust with which the air was always heavy, and the swarming black flies, using their scanty water supply sparingly, and worrying about the rare visits of the sanitary man.”
The trilogy’s second volume, Golden Miles (1948), written during the final year of WWII, is set during WWI, from 1914 and on to 1927. It reflects KSP’s belief that only socialism could arrest the “terrifying spiral of depression, fascism and war” in Australia and beyond.
It was easier for KSP to sustain the balance between the personal and political commentary in the first novel, because the repressive, anti-union forces are evident and directly impact characters. In Golden Miles, the scope and scale of KSP’s concerns begins to widen; readers lose a sense of immediacy with the characters as families expand when children are born and have children of their own.
Having previously written about the extermination and persecution of Indigenous peoples in her earlier Coonardoo (1928)—and having chosen to maintain Kalgoorla’s presence throughout this trilogy, it’s unsurprising that Kalgoorla and her family continue to play a role in Golden Miles. Their presence poses political questions that remain unanswered today, in this era of reconciliation, with ongoing conflicts about sovereignty and stewardship. (Modjeska notes, however,that KSP does not afford Kalgoorla the capacity to speak directly to the reader, so Modjeska declares Coonardoo the more powerful work—though some readers today would protest a white writer’s imagining and amplifying an Indigenous experience, regardless of intent.)
When an Indigenous woman’s body is discovered, an event which echoes present-day awareness of the increased risk of violence faced by vulnerable members of Indigenous communities, KSP describes Kalgoorla’s distrust clearly and justifies her perspective:
“She had more confidence in tribal justice. After all, it was only an aboriginal woman who had been killed, and other native women had died without white men being made to suffer any penalty. Kalgoorla remembered the massacre at Menankilly, and she had a suspicion of powerful interests concerned to protect [the man Kalgoorla believed to have murdered the woman.”
Kalgoorla and the Indigenous community hover around the margins of the mining settlements, just as they maintain a presence on the fringes of KSP’s storytelling, so this woman’s absence has been observed, as one of many instances of injustice and violence. Even though there is a slightly more instructive tone in the second volume, Sally’s frustration feels genuine when she responds to a trooper investigating the Indigenous community: “Good Lord…and what haven’t we thieved from them?”
With Winged Seeds (1950), KSP was “more anxious about this book than the others because it must not flag, but carry interest and spiritual zest to the last gasp” The trilogy’s concluding volume moves from late 1936 to 1946, “when the prospect of a renaissance was glimmering like a mirage on the horizon”. Here, the gap between matters of global importance and the experiences of individual characters widens, so that often the political elements are squarely informative:
“During the depression, it was estimated that 400,000 men were unemployed, or working on short relief terms, throughout the Commonwealth, and that 25,000 farmers had become bankrupt. Another 30,000 continued to work their land under crippling mortgages.”
By now, there are new characters dedicated to agitating and reform (from labour leaders to communist workers), including a character Modjeska describes as a “handsome and starry-eyed socialist”, who draws attention to fascist movements abroad, where “half of the truth about the torture and raping of Jewish and communist women by vicious guards, was not known.” Sally remains contemplative and engaged:
“’But…there’s not much difference in the system which grabs the gold and plays fast and loose with the lives of the people, bashing them into depressions and wars, whenever its interests are at stake.’”
Sally’s spirit and determination is emblematic, and combined with the enduring presence of Dinny and Kalgoorla, this trilogy prioritises the narrative of survival and resilience over defeat and extermination. All while triumphing the need to ally and resist, to strive and improve the conditions of all those who struggle—through poverty, starvation, thirst, violence at home and abroad, dangers at home and at work, and the cultural eradication today recognised as cultural genocide..
“’Again and again, it will come,’ she cried, ‘if we—if the people everywhere—do not organize and unite to stop it. If we are stick-in-the-muds…if we do not think or understand…if we do nothing…can it be otherwise?’”
Throughout the trilogy, but most insistently in Winged Seeds, KSP invites readers to participate in her process of understanding, that very force that compels her creative work. There are many in this novel who “don’t want to hear the truth or be disturbed by it”, whether because they profit from the existing power structures or because—like the woman who attends a lecture but later complains about its militancy—they prefer to be “at home, by the fire, with a nice book”
Every day seems to hold a reminder of the urgency of concerns described in KSP’s fiction – the murder in Brazil of Virgilio Trujillo Arana, an Indigenous man defending Amazonas against “illegal mining exploitation”; or accounts of the hearings into the American insurrection, during the final days of the 45th president’s term, recalling Modjeska’s citing of KSP’s description of confrontations “between the militant left and pro-fascist paramilitary right”; or the gendered violence proliferating in communities around northern diamond mining sites in Canada (from the podcast “Don’t Call Me Resilient”)
Even if the problems evident in today’s media have not changed much since these novels were published, neither has the drive to share those stories, to imagine another kind of future. Sometimes the struggle to make a difference can feel lonely, but KSP offers both comfort and inspiration here, too:
“No one lived alone in a world where war, disease and the ruthless struggle for wealth and power, swept thousands of little people like her into the maelstrom of economic and national crises.”
Novels like these afford readers the opportunity to stay home while, simultaneously, imagining a better world. The trick is to move beyond imagination to execution: “A rage against wrong and injustice isn’t enough, if you do nothing to change them.”
Katharine Susannah Prichard,The Roaring Nineties, first pub. 1946. 411pp. Virago Modern Classics with Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska, 1983
Katharine Susannah Prichard, Golden Miles, first pub. 1948. 386pp. Virago Modern Classics with Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska, 1984
Katharine Susannah Prichard, Winged Seeds, first pub. 1950. 388pp. Virago Modern Classics with Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska, 1983
Declan Walsh “Shadow Group for Putin Gets Rich in Sudan” New York Times International Edition Sunday June 5, 2022 Front page
Finbarr O’Reilly “Coal Dust and Gas Below, Russia’s Bombs Above” New York Times International Edition Sunday June 26, 2022 p. 6
Nathan Hobby, The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (review)
The Australian Legend, Mt Catherine Massacre (here) Includes a map showing many of the locations mentioned in the trilogy.
Marcie McCauley blogs about reading at Buried in Print and about writing at Marcie McCauley.com. She lives in the city currently called Toronto, built on the homelands of indigenous peoples – including the Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabeg and the Wendat – land still inhabited by their descendants.