Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…
The Pioneers by Katharine Susannah Prichard
So far, the historical fiction we’ve found here on PG has ranged from in-depth informational texts to Hans of Iceland punching wolves and bears. With a title like The Pioneers, it could go either way. But this book, upon some examination, manages to pull off an impressive act by balancing the two.
The United States has a long tradition of stories about pioneers and the frontiers…which is completely irrelevant because this book isn’t about America. But you know what other country has a long pioneering history? Australia. You might know that the first British colonies in Australia were founded in the late eighteenth century. But did you know that Australia also had a gold rush of its own in the middle of the nineteenth century? Gold was discovered in New South Wales in 1851, leading to an influx of immigrants from Europe, North America and Asia. This period of Australia’s history is what The Pioneers is based on. The book’s author, Katherine Susannah Prichard, published this in 1915. She was a prominent Australian author in the first half of the 20th century, as well as a founding member of Australia’s Communist Party.
The Pioneers is a multi-generational drama, following the growth of multiple immigrant families over several decades. Chief among them are the Camerons: Scottish patriarch Donald, his Welsh wife Mary and their son Davey. The first section of the book is told largely from Mary’s perspective, showing how she reacts to disasters like a brush fire and moral dilemmas like whether or not to shelter escaped convicts. Davey eventually emerges as the other protagonist of the book, with the second half covering his rocky relationship with his father and his relationship with a childhood friend, Deidre, which is threatened by the schemes of a shady hotel owner.
All of the rural drama and tragic romance feels like something out of a Willa Cather novel: it’s not that different from O Pioneers!, which was published two years earlier. But Prichard’s book feels a bit more complex than some of the other books in this genre and from this time period. There’s more grit, more conflict and more moral ambiguity. Not letting the past define you, whether it’s your own past or the weight of your family history hanging over your head, is a big theme in the book. Several of the main characters, like the kindly Mrs. Cameron and the wise schoolmaster, are former convicts. Prichard depicts them as loving parents and upstanding members of the community, while the antagonists try using these characters’ past deeds to manipulate them and their loved ones. Good people get treated unfairly, they get pushed into bad situations, they’re forced to do some terrible things for the sake of their own survival. It’s pretty bleak.
And yet there’s a clear undercurrent of hope and optimism running through the whole book. The characters have that familiar pioneering spirit, the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, they still have the opportunity to make things better for themselves. It’s an attitude summed up quite well at the end of the book, in a message from the old generation of settlers to the new one:
“I remember, she said to me once,” he said, thoughtfully. “‘You ought to be a great man, Dan, because four great nations have gone to the making of you.’ I didn’t know what she meant at first. Then she told me that my four grandparents were English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh. ‘They have quarrelled and fought among themselves, but you are a gathering of them in a new country, Dan,’ she said. ‘There will be a great future for the nation that comes of you and the boys and girls like you. It will be a nation of pioneers, with all the adventurous, toiling strain of the men and women who came over the sea and conquered the wilderness. You belong to the hunted too, and suffering has taught you.’
“Then she told me about prisons here in the early days, mother, and terrible stories of how people lived in the old country. ‘They may talk about your birthstain by and by, Dan,’ she said, ‘but that will not trouble you, because it was not this country made the stain. This country has been the redeemer and blotted out all those old stains.'”Chapter XLVIII
This is a pretty interesting book. Some modern readers might find it too maudlin or unwieldy, or too uncritical about European expansion into Australia. But if you’re a fan of books like this, especially stuff by Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ll probably find it worth your time. It’s a unique perspective on a familiar narrative, shedding light on a piece of history you may not have heard of.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time and Happy New Year!