I chose The Pioneers as the first book for my AWW/LibriVox challenge after reading about it on a site dedicated to its author, Katharine Susannah Prichard. I was persuaded, in particular, by the site’s assertion about The Pioneers:
This classic Australian story not only commands a prominent position in the cannon of Australian literature but it is also an important part of Australia’s national cultural heritage for its fascinating record and reflection of early Australian life and perspectives.
I confess I was also a bit intrigued by Prichard’s biography. She was nominated for a Nobel Prize and was a c0-founder of the Australian Communist Party. (There’s a rumour in my family that my paternal grandfather was once the head of the Birmingham Communist Party.)
Aside from my gossipy interest in Prichard’s biography, the two issues highlighted by the Prichard site are, I think, especially pertinent not only to the goals of the AWW 2012 challenge, but also other debates currently circulating in Australia about our literary heritage.
One of the concerns that influenced my decision to combine the AWW 2012 challenge with my new LibriVox hobby was the understanding that by recording works by Australian women writers I would be participating in an activity that would potentially make the works I record more accessible not just to Australians but to a global, internet-connected audience. Such a goal is in keeping with Michael Heyward’s recent opinion piece in The Age, where he calls for more film and television adaptations of Australia’s literary texts to foster appreciation of those texts. Creating an audiobook is also an adaptation of sorts given, as I noted in ‘How to Read?’, the work that goes into interpreting the text for an audience. The company where he is a publisher, Text, is certainly doing their bit to make Australians more aware of the richness of our literary heritage by releasing an inexpensive range of Australian classics in May 2012.
The second issue highlighted by the Prichard site is the way The Pioneers offers some insight into Australian life and perspectives of the era. From my reading of the first eight chapters, Donald Cameron represents the free-settlers who came to Australia in search of a fortune that simply wasn’t available to them in their home country. There’s an excerpt from the 1926 film of The Pioneers that illustrates the view that Australia was the free-settlers for the picking:
(Personally, I think the casting here entirely missed the meaning of ‘dour’ as the prominent description of Donald Cameron’s demeanour.)
As the book progresses, it’s also clear that while the free-settlers were escaping a class-bound system in Britain, they weren’t above enforcing their own hierarchies in their new country. It’s no surprise that ‘blacks’ and convicts are regarded with fear and suspicion.
The character of Mary Cameron, Donald’s wife, offers a counter-perspective–to the views about convicts at least (at this stage of my reading). She very clearly expresses the view that a good number of convicts were transported for reasons that were not criminal, but rather politically motivated.
One thing that has surprised me, just reading chapters 7 and 8, where Mary is canvassing the level of support for a school to open up for the children of new settlers, is the understanding that the only potential teachers of children available were former convicts. That’s fascinating right? That it was common knowledge that the criminal classes were the most educated?