I started this book last month, since it was Brona’s AusReading Month, but then I didn’t get to finish it in time. With Thanksgiving, there was just too much going on, but once I settled back into my daily routine (as much as possible with Christmas approaching), this proved to be a quick and satisfying read.
The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill. Caught stealing while working as a bargeman on the River Thames, he is quickly deported to New South Wales. Will is lucky that business is thriving in the port of Sydney, and when he starts to travel up and down the Hawkesbury River to profit from the trade between farmers and townspeople, he is finally able to provide a modest living for his growing family, which was deported with him. Even though Sal, his wife, is intent on returning to England one day, he convinces her to start farming a piece of land along the river. His dream of owning property and pulling his family out of poverty is slowly coming true. But of course the land that he has chosen for his farm is not uninhabited. The native Australians do not look kindly on Thornhill and other settlers taking their land. The tension between the two groups keeps growing until a final, inevitable confrontation.
I have to admit that the book started a little slow. But thankfully, the Cue Card’s review of the book encouraged me to keep reading. And that’s a good thing, because the story really grabbed me once the Thornhills arrive in Australia. I enjoyed reading about a fledgling Sydney, especially after I found some old maps of the area online. I felt for Will and his family as they try to squeeze a living off the land they pick for their farm. The conflict between settlers and natives seemed realistic. It really struck me how similar the settlement of Australia was to the settlement of America when looking only at the interaction between settlers and natives. I don’t know why that has never occurred to me. Ignoring the fact that one group left voluntarily and the other group was forced to leave, the mindset of all colonists was more or less the same: They considered themselves superior to the native population, completely missing the fact that they could learn from a different way of life. (At the very least, it would have made their own survival a little easier.) And sadly, in both cases, the settlers wreaked havoc among the native population.
While the Thornhills seem more open-minded towards the natives as some of their neighbors, they too are handicapped by their inherent racism. Will realizes that his way of working the land requires much more effort for much less return, but he is unable to change. He is further handicapped by the fact that he has to rely on his fellow settlers to a certain extent, and they look much less kindly on the natives than he does.
The final chapter of The Secret River wrapped up the story quite powerfully. It left me rather melancholic and pondering the question of how much is too much to pay for the realization of one’s dreams. It also made me really curious to read more of Grenville’s books. There are two follow-ups (of sorts) to The Secret River: Sarah Thornhill and The Lieutenant. In addition, Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection won the Women’s Prize in 2001. I got my work cut out for next year’s AusReading Month!