Katharine Susannah Prichard's novel Coonardoo, first published in 1929, depicts an intriguing representation of racial tensions and post-colonial settlement in Australia during the 1920s. The city/bush dichotomy is also explored in great depth.
The first half of the story is slow as we learn about Hugh's homestead, Wytaliba station, the locals who work on the land and the beginnings of a love story between Hugh and an indigenous housekeeper named Coonardoo. The pace, however, picks up when we reach Hugh's point of devastation towards the final chapters of this gripping read.
Hugh's initial joy of outback-Australian life dies to the point where he changes as an individual. The tyranny of distance, that is the concept that literal distances between people and places in the outback Australian landscape can be cruel to people and leave them with a sense of isolation, affects Hugh's interpersonal relationship with his daughter, Phyllis, because she gets married, moves out of Wytaliba station and lives '… eighty miles from Wytaliba homestead …' (Prichard 1929, p. 277) in a '… shack of mud bricks roofed with corrugated iron …' (Prichard 1929, p.227).
When Phyllis returns to Wytaliba station to live and work with her father, Hugh, she reinvigorates a happiness he lost when he divorced and lost his family to the city.
Phyllis also helps to keep Hugh relatively sane and inspires hope for the future of Wytaliba Station with her enthusiasm. Hugh's growing loneliness, and his struggles with the arid climate to maintain his cattle business, causes him to slowly lose touch with himself and his community. 'There was a curious heavy quietness about the women from the uloo [native camp]; even the men looked sullen and resentful' (Prichard 1929, p. 227).
Coonardoo is similarly affected by this tyranny of distance, but she also triggers Hugh's ultimate downfall. Sam Geary, Hugh's rival, plies Coonardoo with alcohol and takes advantage of her sexually. When Hugh finds out, instead of punishing Sam, he pushes Coonardoo into a fire (Prichard 1929, p. 224). This act pitches Hugh into his own personal secular hell.
It is interesting to note here that Aboriginal women (and the men to a degree) were constructed in the text as sex objects and/or subservient to white men and women. They were also treated like children, even in their later, more mature, years. Yes, Prichard characterises Coonardoo as a complex Aboriginal person in an attempt to humanise the indigenous Australians, but this is contested and simultaneously reinforced by Prichard's sometimes confusing personification of her subversion to the dominant ideology of 1926: Hugh. He experiences moments of guilt where he is weary of Australia's harsh environment and so he reassures himself that Coonardoo, an aboriginal woman on her own, will be ok:
No harm would come to her out in the ranges. Was she not part of the place and the life? But what a blank her being away made in life at the homestead where she had been! Could anyone believe a man, a sane man, would feel like that about a gin?' (Prichard, p. 228, 1929).
This phallocentric viewpoint perpetuates Prichard's awareness of racism in the 1920s where romantic relations between black and white people could not endure. Using Indigenous Australian women as sexual objects as evidenced by Sam's actions in the prose.
The Australian outback is characterised in Coonardoo as a place that can: isolate and damage individuals mentally, physically and financially via distance and climate. Themes of perpetuating racism between culturally different communities are still relevant today.