Coonardoo spans several decades in the lives of the black aborigines and their white employers on Wytaliba, a remote cattle station in the harsh and arid region of North West Australia, owned and managed first by the tough and gritty widow, Bessie Watt, and later by her son, Hugh Watt. In the opening paragraph, Coonardoo, the lovely, lithe aboriginal girl whom Mrs. Watt is training as a housemaid, is sitting under some bushes, chanting an aboriginal song about kangaroos.
Underlying a complex and densely packed narrative is the story of the unspoken and largely unfulfilled love between Coonardoo and Hugh. In their childhood, they play and ride together as apparent equals, but when Hugh returns to Wytaliba after completing his education on the west coast, he is clearly the white master and she the black servant. Although Coonardoo, in the meantime, has married Warieda, a leading tribesman, and has borne him children, her devotion to Hugh is unquestioning and wholehearted. To Hugh, however, love between the races is unthinkable.
After Bessie Watt’s death, Hugh is stricken with grief and loneliness. Warieda, according to the tribal custom that allows a man to lend his wife to a friend, sends Coonardoo to comfort and console him. This is the only time that Hugh and Coonardoo make love. Afterward, Hugh is filled with remorse, but to Coonardoo, the relationship is quite natural.
Coonardoo gives birth to Hugh’s son, Winni. Hugh, who by this time is married to Mollie, is secretly proud of the boy but takes great pains to conceal his paternity, while Warieda and Coonardoo, having, like the rest of the tribe, no knowledge of the connection between the sexual act and pregnancy, accept the child as a gift of nature.
Hugh’s marriage turns sour over the years. Eventually Mollie guesses the secret of Winni’s paternity and demands that Coonardoo be sent away. Hugh refuses, and Mollie leaves him, taking their five daughters with her. Warieda dies shortly afterward, and it seems that at last fate has made it easy for Hugh and Coonardoo to get together. Hugh brings her into the house as his servant and makes her life more comfortable, but he does not share his bed with her. Coonardoo is hurt and bewildered by this apparent rejection; it is completely beyond her understanding.
Hugh’s strongly held views against miscegenation are constantly reinforced by the taunts and sneers of Sam Geary, a brash and brutish neighboring farmer who lives with several aboriginal women and who had once tried to snatch Coonardoo from Wytaliba to join his other consorts. The tragic climax of the novel begins when Geary, during one of Hugh’s absences, makes a drunken approach to Coonardoo, who, in a state of extreme sexual...
(The entire section is 700 words.)