Commenting on my recent post on Katharine Susannah Prichard’s short story “The bridge”, Prichard biographer Nathan Hobby, pointed us to an online version in Trove of her short story, “Christmas Tree”, which he describes as the best of her early work. It’s about farmers, droughts and banks. Seemed very appropriate (to us in Australia right now, anyhow) so of course I checked it out. (And I corrected the OCR-introduced errors while doing so – hope I caught them all.)
So, “Christmas tree”. Published in The Australasian in 1919, it was, according to writer Glen Phillips, the first of Prichard’s stories to be translated – into Chinese in the 1920s! Fascinating eh? It would be interesting to know who read it and what they made of it.
“Christmas tree” tells the story of Western Australian wheatbelt famers Jinny and George Gillard, and is told third person, primarily through the eyes of Jinny who, at the start, is standing at her back door, reminiscing about their thirty years on the farm. The story starts:
Against the dim blue of the summer sky the Christmas trees had thrown their blossoming crests; they lay along the horizon like a drift of clouds, fluted and curled, pure gold.
The trees stood irregularly in the dry, scrubby land of the plain beyond Gillard’s fences to the north of Laughing Lakes homestead. Their trunks were not visible from the backdoor of the house to where Jinny Gillard stood, her eyes on that distant line of yellow blossom. But she was not thinking of the dark, heavy trees which put on an appearance of such opulent beauty at Christmas time. Her thoughts glanced from them and wandered listlessly, ravelling and unravellin, fretted, anxious, thoughts, old hopes, despairs, bitter, weary, and faint, sweet memories.
This year’s crops were, in fact, better than they had been for years, but it’s all too late – it is not they who will be benefiting from this year’s wheat but the bank.
It’s a sad story, but realistic rather than melodramatic. It’s about hard work and bad luck. Jinny knows they are not the only ones who have struggled. Some have had better luck than George who had sown “lightly when a good season happened along, or heavily when the rain kept off, and so had lost both ways” but some are also in George and Jinny’s predicament. The second part of the story concerns a Christmas party underwritten by one Christopher Tregear, who was chairman of the Great Western’s board of directors and “supposed to be one of the wealthiest men in the State”. Many farmers did business with Great Western, “thinking Tregear’s position in it would guarantee them from harsh treatment. But it had not.” Not for George, not for many others, and yet, here they all are, sees Jinny, dancing and singing with him, though “he was not a good friend of theirs.” Of course, we don’t get Tregear’s point of view, but there’s a sense that with the good season coming, compromises could have been reached.
This story is enjoyable on several fronts. Its realism means it conveys the facts without the histrionics that can sometimes distance readers. The realism also makes more effective the underlying theme that with more loyalty and less greed from the men with money, more farmers could survive the bad seasons. But it’s also enjoyable because of the tight, focused writing – from the sly irony behind the parasitic Christmas trees, and the names of the Gillards’ properties, Laughing Lakes and Everlasting, through the evocative descriptive writing, to the pointed repetition of the Gillards’ mantra “Crack hardy … I’m crackin'”.
“Christmas tree” is a story that hasn’t dated. It’s as relevant now as it was 100 years ago when it was first published – stoicism and dignity never go out of date, and we are still challenged by the role capitalist structures play in people’s lives and livelihoods. Another good read from Prichard – but that’s not surprising.
Katharine Susannah Prichard
First published: The Australasian, 20 December 1919
Also published in Potch and colour, Angus & Robertson, 1944
Available: Online at Trove
Apology: I posted this an hour or so ago with the wrong short story title, so have deleted that post, and republished with the right title, otherwise we’ll all get confused (including Google!)