Critical Context

By the time she wrote Coonardoo, Katharine Prichard had gained considerable acclaim as a novelist. Her first novel, The Pioneers (1915), had been awarded a literary prize and had twice been made into a motion picture (in 1916 and 1926).

Coonardoo, which earned the Sydney Bulletin’s award for the best novel of 1928 and was later published in the Bulletin, was among the first Australian novels to present the aborigines as human beings rather than as crude stereotypes. This aspect of the book provoked controversial responses, ranging from delight to disbelief. In her preface to the first edition, the author counters those who had accused her of “romantic invention” by making clear that everything in the novel was based on her own experiences in the region and that Western Australia’s Chief Inspector of Aborigines had confirmed the authenticity of its ethnic details.

The backgrounds to most of Prichard’s novels are, in fact, based on her own experiences. She traveled widely and investigated firsthand. She was particularly interested in communities welded together by their work, especially heavy industries in the outlying areas, such as opal mining (Black Opal, 1921), timber felling (Working Bullocks, 1926) and gold mining (The Roaring Nineties: A Story of the Goldfields of Western Australia, 1946; Gold Miles, 1948; Winged Seeds, 1950).

Coonardoo, a key novel in this major trend in her work, expresses several aspects of the author’s passion for social justice and sexual equality. Her political commitments as a Communist, pacifist, and feminist were more fully in evidence in some of her later novels, notably in her highly acclaimed goldmining trilogy.