I finished recording The Pioneers on Saturday, well ahead of my mid-April schedule for completion. Even the tea incident didn’t deter me! I put the unexpected rapidity of my progress down to the fact that I really enjoyed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s first novel. I’d get to the end of a chapter and think, just one more! Sometimes it was only the fact I kept tripping over my hapless tongue that I would stop.
In my posts on the earlier chapters, I noted how well Prichard conveyed the atmosphere of the colonial settlement and that continued throughout the remainder of the novel. As someone who’s obsessed with food, I was especially interested to read at one point about blackened hams and bushels of herbs hanging over the hearth. Now that made me drool in a way that weak tea and thin gruel porridge in another scene did not.
While Prichard went on to write Coonardoo, whose eponymous Aboriginal heroine is the central character, in The Pioneers, the character of Teddy, a stock-hand, is minor. He’s represented very much in, what was no doubt then (perhaps even still), a fairly common way to view Australia’s First Peoples: he is child-like and superstitious, not to be trusted, but at the same time relied upon entirely for his knowledge of country as it served the pioneers. The only time anyone addresses a direct comment to Teddy it’s in broken, simplified English:
You go back, tell boss—cows all right—Davey very sick man, here.
At the heart of this novel is an ambivalence about the pioneering project. While many of the characters reflect on the achievements of Donald Cameron as the first settler to open up the hill country, when Deidre contemplates the manner of his death, the possibility of a very different reading emerges:
She wondered if he had ring-barked the tree—score its living green wood—if he had killed it, and in turn it had killed him, pinning him to the earth with its great bulk of dead and rotting timber. She could see Davey’s father, heavy, squarely-built, in shabby, dark clothes, lying beneath it, his grey hair blood-dabbled, his face bruised and blackened. The man who had conquered the wilderness had lain there, on the very road he had made, broken, cast aside—a thing that life had done with. It was as if the wilderness had taken its revenge.
This observation, in addition to Cameron’s miserly, dissatisfied character, ensures we don’t admire him unreservedly.
In the end, it is the women who endure despite the folly and treachery of their menfolk.
Meanwhile, following up on my earlier question about how The Pioneers was received at the time of its first publication, I found a contemporary review of The Pioneers at Trove via the National Library of Australia. The review was in The Queenslander Newspaper, 13 November 1915, and if it reveals a major incident in the plot without warning (!), is complimentary:
This and other exciting incidents give a sensational cast to the story and sustain the interest when the struggles of the pioneer period have ended. The story is one of very considerable merit and interest.
If we described a novel as having a ‘sensational cast’ today, I’m not sure it would be a compliment, but I’m interpreting the final line of the review to suggest that in the historical context it is. Perhaps the true test, however, would be to track down a copy of the review in The Bulletin (Vol.36 No. 861, 2) to see what those blokes thought.
My recording of The Pioneers is currently being catalogued and will be available shortly via LibriVox. I’ll let you know.
UPDATE 28 FEB: Well, that was a far speedier process than I thought it would be. The audiobook is now available for download here. Would love to know what you think.