Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2019

‘The Kid’, a short story by Katharine Susannah Prichard, from the Bulletin Vol 28. No 1405 (17 Jan 1907)

Alerted by her biographer Nathan Hobby to the 50th anniversary of the death of Australia’s ‘world famous revolutionary authoress’ Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), I’ve commemorated the event by reading one of her short stories at Trove.  Published in The Bulletin (Vol 28, No 1405, 17 Jan 1907) ‘The Kid’ is a gothic bush story, and Nathan thinks it’s the best of her early work. 

In 2000 words, KSP tells the poignant story of an unloved child, nameless and deprived of all consolation.  She conveys the child’s life through the characterisation of her parents: The Kid’s only friend, a young stockman called Ben, tells the parson that McDonald, her father is a brute, and that her stepmother Leeze hates her.  Too often Ben has seen her driving cows on the range in every weather —storms, mists, snow—barefoot, and red an’ blue with cold, drenched and hungry. He has sheltered her in his rudimentary way when she has come to him covered in bruises.  He has fed her, and let her sleep by the fire, troubled by the way that she didn’t cry as children usually do.

Now it is Ben who sounds the alert when the Kid goes missing.  She had come to him, deeply troubled when Leeze’s babe had died. In the grinding harshness of her life, this baby was her sole solace,  as she lavished on it the love she had never had herself:

The Kid learned how to make him chuckle and crow, make his eyes twinkle up and the soft cheeks dimple. She often stole him away when she was minding cows on the hills. Hours long, they frolicked together in the bush of the hills and in the long meadowy paddocks. She crooned him to sleep with wild unmusical lulling tones, lavishing love and tenderness on the neglected thing—the love and tenderness, savage and untaught, that is instinct.

She is too young and ignorant to know what death is, but she knows what their time together meant to both of them:

“They deaded him!” said the Kid obstinately; “’n’ if his inside’s gone away, so’s there ain’t only the outside of ’im left, ’e can’t go rollin’ in the grass when the daisies is out. ’E can t pluck the gold-tops, or go after the cows with me; ’n’ he liked it! ”

“Oh !” she wailed, bitterly, “ ‘n’ ‘e liked it. ’E pulled me ’air, ’n’ I seed the peepin’ black eyes of ’im in the grass ! We’d be squallin’ ’nd yellin’ all the day ; ’n’ I’d take ’im home poddy-back. They sha’n’t put ’im in a hole ‘n’ cover ’im up with dirt.”

She had overheard the parents arguing about the burial.  She fled to Ben with the body, anxious about God’s plans for the dead baby because the parson has told her that God gets ’em.

“Y’re a pag’n, Kid ! ” he said. “ ’E don’t want yer babe till he’s dead. Folks have been stuffin’ yer with bogey-yarns—ter scare yer, I reck’n.” He paused in the afternoon sunshine, sat on his leg a moment, and swept the heavy sweat from his forehead.

“When a man’s dead, something that was him goes. The outside’s the same. Something inside of him is taken away. The rest’s most-ways what’s called a mystery! That’s a bit to scare yer, too. It’s like gettin’ bushed in a fog, Kid, to think about. You go along with the first man that says ’e cen put yer ou the right track. The red-haired parson says, when a man dies, if e sings ’n’ prays, ’e goes straight to is happy home in ’eaven. Father Shaunessy says ’e camps a bit, this side in Purgat’ry. His friends mostly say e goes to Hell straight. There’s another gent what says ’e don’t go ’t all, says ’e stays in the earth n rots, ’n’ that’s all. Go fast, go slow, go anyhow, ’n’ don’t go’t all—there’s some as says that’s what happens when yer die.”

The Kid kept her arm tight clasped about the red-flannel shawl. She pressed it to her. Her thought of it was too intense to follow Ben’s theological preamble.

It’s only when Ben realises what she is holding in her arms that it dawns on him that her questions are more than theoretical.  In his alarm, he tries to tell her a comforting lie about parents that he knows are not at all like ‘most people’.

“ But I say, Kid, when folks die they’ve got to be buried, whether they go to heaven or where, said Ben with dawning comprehension in his eyes.

“If y’ babe’s dead,” he said slowly and with many stoppings. He was rough and simple, this youth of the backwoods. His eyes covered the waif with a clear glance of fellowship and sympathy. They divined the pitiful love and ignorance, the unreasoning human, passionate pain through which the child was laboring. “If y’ babe’s dead,” he said, slowly, “ likely they’ll be good to ’im. ’E was a little ’un, yer know, ’n’ ’n most people’s good to little ’uns.”

The Kid’s conversation with Ben about God, and Ben’s simple explanations prompted me to ask Nathan if KSP had any religious belief.  This was his reply:

During her father’s depression when “The Kid” was written, she was still trying to hold onto her Anglican faith, despite many doubts. Her father was very devout, and she would pray with him and promise to believe in God if he would cure him.  She dates her confirmed atheism from his death [by suicide] in June 1907.

I wonder what the Bulletin’s readers thought when they read this story.  It was a different era, of course, but child protection services began to develop in the 1890s amid greater awareness of abuses.  This story from 1907 may have been KSP’s way of demonstrating that children in isolated rural areas—where 95% of Australians lived and worked in the early twentieth century—were especially vulnerable.

To find out more about KSP and to be among the first to know when Nathan’s biography is finished, follow him @nathanhobby or his blog Nathan Hobby, a Biographer in Perth

Source: 1880, The Bulletin John Haynes and J.F. Archibald, Sydney, N.S.W viewed 30 September 2019 http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-637733699.  Read ‘The Kid’ for yourself here. Links to another short stories are at Nathan’s blog here.


Responses

  1. I still love Haxby’s Circus.

    Like

    • Me too. The hardships that girl endured have stayed in my mind.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Poor settlers’ and workers’ kids had a hard time in the bush, probably up to WWII, even if they weren’t maltreated by the stereotypical step-mother and I think their stories were often told in the Bulletin, perhaps reflecting that writers were more likely to be middle class than working class.

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