As I’ve been writing about Katharine Susannah Prichard’s experience of World War One for my biography, I’ve been re-reading one of her novels which dates from much later - Golden Miles (1948). It’s the only novel in which she directly writes about World War One. It probably took thirty years of distance before she felt able to write about that traumatic time. It’s the second of her goldfields trilogy which together chronicle the discovery and development of Kalgoorlie-Boulder through the central character of Sally Gough.
Pictured above: The dustjacket for the German edition (1954) of Golden Miles beautifully captures the mood of the book, as goldfields pioneer, Sally, looks over the growing town of Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
Katharine thought the goldfields trilogy was the culmination of her writing career, her greatest literary achievement. It was painful for her that many reviewers disagreed. Golden Miles was published at a time of strong anti-communist sentiment in Australia and its sympathetic depiction of miners’ union struggles against a rotten system were seen by many as propaganda.
With the passage of time, I find there’s much to enjoy in Golden Miles. It follows the fate of the next generation, Sally Gough’s four sons, as they take different paths in the world. Should they work in the mines and risk an early death from miners’ disease? Should they follow the patriotic sentiment sweeping the town and fight in a distant war? There’s poignancy in Sally’s attempts to help her sons’ lives turn out right, even as there’s little she can do.
“There were those sinister forces outside Sally, her home and her sons, always threatening the security of the small fort she had built for herself. No one lived alone in a world where war, disease and the ruthless struggle for wealth and power, swept thousands of little people like her into the maelstrom of economic and national crises.” (p.99)
The parts of the novel featuring Sally are strong. I think the weakest parts are those where events such as the race riots and mining disputes are narrated indirectly. The novel would be better if they were told with the same character involvement and literary “thickness” as the rest.
The goldfields trilogy is not the best place to start reading Katharine Susannah Prichard - I would recommend Coonardoo or her short stories instead. However, it is well worth reading, and not just for those interested in the goldfields or the breadth of Katharine’s work. It forms a powerful saga, significant to Australian literature despite its flaws.