Monday musings on Australian literature: Mining in Australian fiction

I was inspired to write this post by Bill’s (The Australian Legend) post on Catherine Helen Spence’s novel Clara Morison whose subtitle is “a tale of South Australia during the gold fever”. Mining is one of Australia’s biggest industries. Iron, copper, coal, silver, gold, zinc, bauxite and opals have all played significant roles in Australia’s economy and thus in the lives of many Australians. But, how often has it featured in our fiction?

The funny thing is that when I think of mining in fiction, my first thoughts don’t go to Australian novels, but to books like Richard Llewellyn’s coal mining classic How green was my valley, and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of repose about white settlers in the American West. This post, then, is as much a brains-trust fishing expedition as it is an informative one, but I plan to throw a few thoughts into the mix.

Nineteenth to mid-twentieth century

Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morison was published in 1854, and, as Bill writes, a major stream is the mining story, including the loss of men from South Australia’s copper mine to the excitement of the Victorian goldfields.

Katharine Susannah Prichard wrote several novels about mines, mining and/or mining towns, starting with her third novel, Black opal (1921). Set in an opal mining settlement, Falling Star Ridge, it draws from New South Wales’ Lightning Ridge where she’d spent some months. Prichard biographer, Nathan Hobby, discusses it on his blog. He says that by the time she wrote this novel Prichard “had committed to communism, and the influence is evident”. For example, she “paints a picture” of the settlement as a “workers’ utopia”. Prichard’s Goldfields trilogy (The Roaring Nineties, 1946; Golden Miles, 1948; and Winged Seeds, 1950) came later. It chronicles life in Kalgoorlie from the the discovery of gold up to the early 1940s when Prichard lived there. Hobby has also written on his blog about these books, focusing particularly on the political impetus behind their writing.

Vance Palmer also wrote a mining trilogy – the Golconda trilogy: Golconda (1948), Seedtime (1957) and The big fellow (1959). They tell the story of a mining town – one I once knew well, Mount Isa – from the time it was a mountain of silver and lead through to the established town. Deborah Jordan (in the Queensland Historical Atlas) writes that the characters include Macy Donovan, who begins as an obscure union organiser in early Golconda, but ends up the premier of Queensland, and Christy who “embodies the dying prophetic vision of the socialists of the 1890s”. Palmer, she says, was apparently fascinated by political leadership, especially those leaders who emerged from the ranks.

Mid to late twentieth century

Thea Ashley, It's raining in Mango

Another author who has written more than once about mines and mining towns is Thea Astley, though not as intensively as Prichard and Palmer. An item from the late news (1982) (my review) is set in the dying town of Allbut, which was once a thriving mining centre. Mining is not the focus – indeed I don’t mention it in my review – but its aftermath, the directionless machismo simmering in the town, underpins the novel. A few years later, Astley wrote It’s raining in Mango (1987), a four-generation story set in north Queensland, which I read around the time it came out. It covers a lot of ground, but includes references to the massacre of Indigenous people by goldfield diggers in the 1860s.

I’m guessing that miners and mining feature in outback-set commercial fiction, but this is not my area my expertise. However, my research suggests, for example, that Bryce Courtenay, who had worked in mines in South Africa, has two brothers working on goldfields, among other places, in his novel, Tommo and Hawk.

Twenty-first century

Historical fiction, which has been part of most of the novels/trilogies I’ve described above, continued into the 21st century. Mirandi Riwoe’s Big sky stone mountain (2020) explores the experience of Chinese people in late nineteenth Australia, including on the Queensland goldfields. Gail Jones’ latest novel, Our shadows (2020), takes us back to Kalgoorlie. It’s apparently a three-generation story starting with the discovery of gold there in 1893. Guardian reviewer Bec Kavanagh says that “Jones tells a story of gold and greed that goes beyond myth and folklore, deep into a family trying to reconcile their past with the present”.

Book cover

However, one of the biggest contemporary issues facing mining in Australia is the right traditional owners of Aboriginal land have to make agreements with mining companies concerning use of their land. It’s encouraging to see this issue appearing in modern novels. Mining and rights is the main focus of non-Indigenous writer Madeleine Dickie’s 2019 novel, Red can origami (my review). Dickie explores the issue from multiple perspectives – indigenous, environmental, political and personal.

Book cover

But, importantly, mining is also covered by Indigenous Australian writers. Maggie Nolan, writing in Australian Literary Studies, argues that while Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review) “can be, and has been, read in a range of ways, … the impacts of mining are central to any understanding” of it. She says that “few commentators have focused on the centrality of mining in the story”, to which I must hold up my hand, though when I thought of this topic, Carpentaria immediately came to mind. Mining also features in Tara June Winch’s The yield (my review). When August returns home for her grandfather “Poppy” Albert’s funeral, she discovers that a mining company is staking its claim. Ellen van Neerven, writing in the Australian Book Review argues that “The Yield is an anti-mining novel for the present day in the wake of the approval of the Adani coal mine in central Queensland”.

I’ll stop here, but I’ll just observe that politics – labour issues, environmental issues, indigenous land rights issues, for example – features in most of the fiction I’ve listed here. What does that say about Australia’s relationship with the mining upon which so much of our wealth depends?

What are your thoughts, and do you have more examples (from whichever country you come from) of mining novels?

37 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Mining in Australian fiction

  1. I think you’ve pretty much covered the territory that I know of, but there is also No Small Shame by Christine Bell, which features a young man destined for the Wonthaggi coal mines who escapes via enlistment in WW1. Mining also features in Ecstasy Lake by Alistair Sarre, and in The Liberator’s Birthday by Jill Blee, which is about the sectarian conflict that characterised life on the Ballarat Goldfields in the 1870s…
    And while it’s not fiction, we must not forget A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53, by Ellen Clacy!
    PS I’ve reviewed The Black Opal too.

  2. Kirkham’s Find by Mary Gaunt is the only other novel I can think of which contains mining. Though most novels set in the 1850s have men going off to the goldfields – Memoirs of Geoffry Hamlyn, Robbery Under Arms, Up the Country. In WA we all live off mining but I can’t think on an even remotely contemporary work about it.

  3. How you go about assembing your research for such (comparatively) small-sized topics is a source of amazement to me, ST ..
    I think you could be relied on to come up with an article about Aussie writers covering any topic in the world !!!

  4. A bit of nod to my teen years – Catherine Gaskin’s I Know My Love.
    But, the main book I think about when I think about mining, is Zola’s Germinal (not Australian I know).

  5. Bret Harte and Jack London wrote stories about mining. Mark Twain wrote a story or two, but his best writing about mining appears in the Roughing It which is not or not mostly fiction. Breece D’J. Pancake (who died in the late 1970s, not old) set his stories mostly in West Virginia mining towns; at at least one protagonist is a miner. I believe that Geraldine Brooks (whom you mentioned not long ago) set a novel around mining in the 18th Century British Isles. After that, it’s easier to think of novels set around mining: Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is set in a copper town, but is mostly about violent crime; John O’Hara set some of his work in this native hard-coal region of Pennsylvania.

    • Thanks very much for these George. It would be interesting I think to look at, say, gold-mining novels and coal-mining ones (which are probably the most common mines we find in literature). Such different concerns and trajectories – greed in one, poverty/danger/exploitation in the other?

  6. Actually, two more instances occur to me. One could count The Hobbit,given the obvious mining expertise of the dwarves. And early on in Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the traveling party encounters a miner, who gives them quite a talk on the merits of mining.

      • If you have read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, you may remember Novalis (though under his given–civilian?–name of Friedrich von Hardenberg) as the central character. The first paragraph (or at least an early one) of Heinrich von Ofterdingen is read out to a friend.

  7. Like M-R, I think your ability to link books to a theme is very impressive! And thought provoking too. Two more books to (possibly) add to your list.
    Red Dog, a short novel by Louis de Bernières that was made into a film (and was a rare instance where I enjoyed the film better!). The novel is set in mining community in WA, although it’s not specifically about mining, and not an Australian author.
    The Luminaries by New Zealander Eleanor Catton is set in the NZ goldfields. Thrilled for her that she won the Booker with it, but it wasn’t a book that fully captured me.

    • Oh, Red Dog! Michelle! How did I miss that one given its being among the top hits on my blog for a long time. And yes, I probably could have made a quick nod across the ditch to The luminaries. (I had mixed feelings about it too, though did enjoy the read.)

  8. A couple more: Anson Cameron’s brilliant “Silences Long Gone” in a dying iron mining town & Michelle Johnston’s “Dustfall” set at Wittenoom’s asbestos mines (on my TBR list).

  9. Hi Sue, I have Oyster by Janette Turner Hospital to add to your list. Ion Idriess wrote many non fiction books on our different mining industries in Australia. I just watched the series – The Luminaries, and it was quite good.

  10. There are many examples from CanLit which seem to bear some similarity to the books you’ve listed and described, although I doubt if m/any would be known or available to you readily. There was a film made though, starring Helena Bonham Carter, called Margaret’s Museum, which was absolutely beautiful and based (faithfully) on a novella written by Atlantic Canada’s Sheldon Currie. Maybe the film would have travelled even if the books have not. There are also some mining stories in the new collections of short stories that I’m undertaking, starting next month, by Alistair MacLeod. There’s also D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. (And, I know it’s non-fiction, but I found Hector Tobar’s Deep Down Dark was startlingly good.

    • Thanks for all this Buried. I don’t know that movie/book which is not to say it didn’t make it here. And thanks for mentioning Sons and lovers – it’s a great mining town classic, and I should have mentioned it in my opening paras.

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