Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Secret River - Kate Grenville

The Secret River is the rarely told story of our nation from the perspective of an early convict turned free settler. It is amazingly accurate, and I believe should be part of every high school curriculum.

It is the story of William Thornhill, and begins on the streets of dreary London where William grows up poor, cold and always hungry. It follows his life through to adulthood, and the fate that befalls him after his run in with the law. Saved from the noose, he is shipped off to Sydney. His wife Sal follows as a free settler and in the new land, becomes his master. After a few years, William is pardoned and the family begin their new life on the Hawkesbury.

The challenges they face are hardly imaginable to us today. Forced to deal with Australia's extreme climate and harsh landscape, the family struggle to build a home and grow crops. The opportunity to 'own' something when he has always had nothing, pushes William to perservere. What Thornhill didn't count on though, was that the land already belonged to someone else. Tensions between the new settlers and the local Darug people simmmers slowly. Some settlers treat the Darug as less than human - raping the women, chaining them up like dogs and poisoning their food. Others choose to live in harmony with them, but must keep this fact a secret for fear of being outcast. Eventually the tensions reach boiling point and Thornhill, a man of principle, must decide if he will do what only ‘the worst of men would do.’ (p.300).

Kate Grenville is a literary genius and in this book, she has taken history and made it real. So very real. The subtleties of the story were the strongest for me - the changes in the relationship between husband and wife; the ability children have to assimilate without question; the questioning of your own truth when your choices are difficult and life is too hard to understand; the loss of intimacy with the land, culture and spirituality.

Reading of the pain and suffering of not only indigenous Australians, who were so cruelly de-humanised, but also our early ancestors, who may as well have been on another planet, has given me a much better understanding of why our relationship is the way it is today. The Secret River was not an easy read in terms of emotion. It made me incredibly sad, and I felt immense guilt. In the same vein though, it also made me feel very proud to be Australian.