The Wild Oats Of Han | Katharine Susannah Prichard #AWW

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Last year, my friend at the Writer’s Centre NSW, now called Writing NSW, was planning on hosting an Honouring event for Katharine Susannah Prichard. It’s an annual event, of which I have managed to attend about half so far. I had just popped my name on the expressions of interest list early last year, when Covid happened and changed everything.

For those of you already active in the Australian Women Writer’s area, in particular the world of classic writers, you will know that Western Australian biographer, Nathan Hobby is working on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. Naturally he was heavily involved in this honouring event. His first post revealed which books of Prichard’s made his chosen Reading List. At the top was her ‘most underrated’ work, The Wild Oats of Han: The Life of an Australian Child (1928). I was intrigued, so I followed the Trove link and started reading.

After a dark and troubled time that was like the memory of a storm, Peter Barry had climbed the hill which rose from the sleepy old township of Launceston and had chosen the house built right at the top of the hill as a home for Rosamund Mary, Grandmother Sarahy and Han, when Han was no more than beginning to be interested in the use of her legs.

It wasn’t always easy to follow the trail of ‘to-be-continued’s’ through the various editions of The Home journal, but I was so enchanted with Han and her childhood from the first paragraph that the technical hurdles simply added to the charm of this reading experience.

In spring time the hills were carpeted with wild violets, lavender and white. So frail and delicate, they might have been fairy sun bonnets. Han was up before the dawn to pick them. She gathered handfuls, tore the flowers from their stubby roots and shook dew which hung in silver beads and ran like quicksilver on the thin, hairy wild grasses.

The Wild Oats of Han was published from July 1926 until May 1927 in The Home journal, not appearing in book form until 1928. Apparently the 1968 edition was heavily revised/abridged, so if you want the full, original story, you will need to scour the second hand bookshops, or visit Trove.

The serialised version of The Wild Oats of Han 1926 – 1927:

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The Wild Oats of Han is a delightful story of a childhood in retrospect. Written by an adult who is fondly remembering a wild, unstructured childhood growing up on a bush block in late 19th century Launceston. It sometimes had the feel of a disappointed/jaded adult looking back to a more innocent, idyllic and happier time, right up until the last couple of chapters.

I am one of those readers who does not usually read a book because of its ‘ism’s. Bill has provided us with two of the main ‘ism’s that inform this period in Australian literature – social realism and modernism and Sue has written an informative and enlightening follow up here. Thankfully, she talks about how blurry these labels are in reality, because KSP has confused me somewhat with her Wild Oats of Han.

It’s clearly written about her own childhood in Launceston and written with an eye to showing (retrospectively) her socialist background/heritage (I believe) yet it is also highly nostalgic and sentimental in style, which makes it hard to apply the word ‘realism’ to it when it feels so idealised and romaticised. They were obviously a family that was doing just fine until the father lost his job and became bankrupt. They had a full-time domestic and the children didn’t seem to be involved in any or many of the daily chores. Yet, disadvantage is around them. Neighbours were doing it tough, Sam, the handyman, lived on his own out in the bush and after the big flood of 1893, the loss of life and property was very confronting to a young Han.

Her wild, unstructured childhood had an Anne of Green Gables quality. Instead of swanning around Prince Edward Island re-enacting poetry, getting in trouble at school and accidently getting her best friend drunk on the blackberry nip, Han was a gatherer of bush bouquets, a child who regularly sneaked outside in the middle of the night and someone who left a busy-body neighbour on a ledge overnight, until her conscience got the better of her.

Love of the country is paramount to Han’s childhood. She climbs trees, explores caves, swims in the river, and knows the area surrounding her home inside and out. She regularly visits Sam in his bush shack for a chat. He is the moral arbiter, or social conscience, of the story who talks to Han about inequality, politics and injustice. 

Throughout the story, Prichard comments on the habit of beating ‘naughty’ children, stealing eggs from nests and the importance of education for getting ahead in life.

A very romantic circus scene is described when it comes to town (a life-long affection which obviously informed KSP’s decision to write Haxby’s Circus later on). The story is full of such bucolic moments and memories right up until the last two instalments. The flood devastates Launceston, but also their family more personally. Grandmother Sarahy exhausts herself taking food to those in distress, taking to her bed briefly before dying. The grief and loss of the adults was palpable, although young Han was completely unable to process what had happened. This trauma is quickly followed by another – the auction of household furniture to pay for their debts and an impending move.

I wouldn’t normally include as many quotes  as I have from one book, but given the tricky technical nature of reading this, I thought I would share more than normal to highlight some of the themes or ‘ism’s. 

Opening Lines

Han was the wildest of all the little wild animals who lived in the hills. Her grass-straw hat was in variably torn; so were her short black skirts and the stockings that covered her long thin legs.

Aboriginal and Colonial History:

Sam told Han ever so many stories of the black people who, naked, with fierce bright eyes and dishevelled hair, their stone axes and wooden spears in their hands, had hunted in the hills until the white people came. Tales of the white people who had seized their land and become strong and wealthy in it, and of the droving of these wild people to a corner of the island where they died miserably within a few years. Stories, too. Sam told of the terrible time when Van Diemen’s Land was a criminal colony. He talked of the life of trees, the habits of birds, wallabies, bandicoots, and of the world —the great, dim, mysterious “world” which lay beyond the hills.

Innocence of Childhood:

She had no moral sense, understood no right or wrong in the matter. She did not know why she did Things You Were Punished For Doing, or why she liked doing them. The urge was there, within her, an imperious curiosity, lust for adventure.

Gender Issues:

And when Teddy was an elderly boy of eight, and nearly as big as Han herself. Peter gave him a tommy-axe to cut the sticks with. That was a thing that had never happened to Han. She had never been given an axe. When she asked Peter why, he said it was because she was not a boy. Being a boy, Han thought, must be more than being a girl; it meant having an axe all to yourself to cut wood with.

Parenting:

Peter and Rosamund Mary said they believed in letting children bring up themselves; but there were two things Peter was strict about. Han and Teddy and Tom knew that these two things were: telling the truth and doing as you were told without question and at once.

Sam’s Bush Philosophy:

…but you waken sooner. It’s the wakenin’ that’s worth while. Lots of men and women aren’t awake …. they’re afraid to think . . . . afraid to feel. They carry theirselves around like cracked mugs . . . . never realising life. They never realise it because they never get to grips with it —know the rush and violence of joy and sorrow.”

 

Grandmother Sarahy continued: “You see, you are …. an unbeliever, Mr. Sam. You have strange revolutionary ideas about things as they are, and things as they should be. I’ve heard Han talk about the early government, and management of affairs of this island. They may not have been quite what one would have desired, but …. surely, the flogging of convicts and …. martyrdom of Black Norfolkers …. are not fit subjects for conversation with a little girl. 

“It’s wrong to break the spirit of children, or try to make them little tame creatures. You’re interferin’ with the growth of the soul. It’s the spirited children are always the great and good men and women, the rebels, heroes, and reformers. The soul in ’m grows and blooms, naturally, gloriously. The little tame ones go along the road of Life with their ciuite ways, afraid of the heat of the sun, afraid of the wind and the rain, afraid …. afraid. The rose of the soul in them grows so slowly. Sometimes they’re old men and women before it opens—and they awaken. Sometimes they go to their graves with the soul no more than a tight bud in their bosoms, or a cancerous blighted thing that has never bloomed fully at all.” 

The Circus Comes to Town:

Han had no words to express her wonder and bewilderment. It was all a fairy tale come true to her, to see these creatures and people in the town. She could scarcely believe it was the same old white washed Launceston she knew so well. The cobbled by-streets had a new romance and mystery.

Poverty:

Han remained staring at he mother. She only realized Rosamund Mary had given away family things, things reverenced and loved. “Did you give them our red chair?” she asked unbelievingly. Rosamund Mary nodded, shrinking from explaining the difference between giving and selling; or why it had been necessary to sell the red chair. 

Coming of Age:

Sam watched her run into the mists which were gathering below the brow of the hill. Han, looking back, saw him. his gaunt figure in dingy white moleskins outlined like a dead tree against the dark forest. She knew he was thinking, as she was, that she was going down into the great mysterious world they had talked so much of, to take her part in the joy and the labour and the sorrow of it.

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Why I Am A Communist by KSP (1956):

How was it that some people should have to live in fear and poverty all their days, while others, whether they worked or not, could live easily and pleasantly, squandering riches, and concerned only about their own pleasure and power?

These are the questions I asked myself.

Perhaps my mind awakened when I was a child to some awareness of a problem in life.

The story of that awakening I have told in “The Wild Oats of Han,” which describes my own childhood.

We were living in Tasmania, and I was about nine years old, when, coming home from a day in the bush with my brothers, we saw the family furniture piled on carts driving along the road, and a red auctioneers flag over the gate.

Bursting with indignation, I wanted to know why other people had taken possession of our furniture.

Mother was in tears. She told me we were going away. Father was ill and had no work. The furniture had to be sold because father and she had very little money. They were terribly worried. I must be a good girl and try to help and not make things harder for her.

Till then, I had been “the wildest of all the little wild animals that lived in the hills”; living joyously, as they did, full of mischief and with no consciousness of any trouble in the world.

Suddenly mother’s grief stirred me to a realisation of it: of some dark, mysterious trouble. I must help her to prevent it hurting my younger brothers, baby sister, and father.

Long afterward, I learnt that the “Daily Telegraph” of which father was editor, had ceased publication.

Editors, in those days, earned only a small salary, and the anxiety of providing for his family, getting another job, caused a nervous breakdown from which father did not recover for some time.

We returned to Melbourne and lived in a house lent to us by one of mother’s sisters. Mother was always sewing then. I saw her, late at night, smocking lovely little dresses for other children, or painting “illuminated addresses” which she sold to be presented to distinguished citizens.

The responsibility of earning money to feed and clothe us all depended on her, and I remember her distress when the baker called with a bill she could not pay.

Read and written for Bill’s Gen III Part II Reading Week and the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.