Title: The Secret River
Author: Kate Grenville
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Year Published: 2005
Source: public library
Award(s): Winner of the 2006 Commonwealth Prize
Challenge(s): Aussie Author Challenge
London, 1807. William Thornhill, happily wedded to his childhood sweetheart Sal, is a waterman on the River Thames. Life is tough but bearable until William makes a mistake, a bad mistake for which he and his family are made to pay dearly. His sentence: to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. The Thornhills arrive in this harsh and alien land that they cannot understand and which feels like a death sentence. But among the convicts there is a rumour that freedom can be bought, that ‘unclaimed’ land up the Hawkesbury offers an opportunity to start afresh, far away from the township of Sydney. When William takes a hundred acres for himself he is shocked to find Aboriginal people already living on the river. And other recent arrivals – Thomas Blackwood, Smasher Sullivan and Mrs Herring – are finding their own ways to respond to them. Soon Thornhill, a man neither better nor worse than most, has to make the most difficult decision of his life.
This book is exactly what I was looking for when I started hunting for books to read for the Aussie Author Challenge. I have heard over and over and over again (literally, a was a history minor) of the Native Americans and their relationship with the British colonists in the early 19th century. However, I felt like I was missing out. I never got to hear about what the relationship was like between the Australian aborigines and the British colonists. i assumed that the relationship was pretty much the same, and, at least what I can take from this novel as truth, I was correct.
The story focuses on William Thornhill and his family, fighting for their own land in Australia. At the beginning of the novel, the aboriginal people didn’t appear to be hostile, but as the story went on, tensions began. This is, essentially, historically accurate. Unfortunately, I feel the native peoples in what became British colonies were too accepting from the get go and waited too long to try to take back what was theirs. I mean, Thornhill brings up an excellent point!–the guns that the colonists had were much less efficient against spears (or more likely arrows in the Americas), because of the lengthy process of reloading. In the US, for example, the longer colonists/settlers stayed, the more the Native Americans got pushed out and the more advanced guns and such weaponry became. Had they not believed the British colonists that they would get to keep “most of their land” and fought back earlier on, we might not have the US or Australia.
(But alas! The British kindly brought various diseases, at least to the Americas, which wiped out a majority of the native populations, who became outnumbered.)
If you cannot tell, I feel a little guilty at what my ancestors did to the Native Americans. And Africans. Sometimes I just feel like I come from a population of generally bad people 🙂
But I digress…I hate to sound like a broken record (since I’ve been loving most of the books I’m reading lately), but I truly did love this story. The beginning was heartbreaking because Thornhill was a man who tried to bring himself up from poverty in England, only to be squashed. And then it seemed like the same was about to happen again in Australia. While I generally dislike when authors skip large chunks of time, especially at the end of the story (let’s not even start about the Harry Potter 7 epilogue), those ten years that Grenville skipped in Thornhill’s life seemed well placed and did not mess up the flow. I felt it worked in this way, especially so we could see how Thornhill and his family had grown and, for the most part, achieved many of their dreams.