the secret riverJanuary 2014

On 28th May, 2000, nearly 300,000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of Indigenous Australians, and reconciliation. Kate Grenville, an Australian author, was one of those taking part. Towards the end of the walk, she exchanged a smile with an Aborigine woman, and caused an old family phrase to come to her mind. Grenville’s ancestor had been transported to Australia after stealing some timber on the Thames, had served his time, been pardoned and had gone on to take up land, and become quite wealthy. The phrase ‘take up land’ suddenly seemed wrong to Grenville – there were people already living there, albeit without fences and houses, and from there, The Secret River was born.

The first part of the book is based entirely on what Grenville was able to discover of her great great great grandfather’s history. William Thornhill is a boatman on the Thames, ferrying people across, and collecting goods from barges and delivering them to shore. He is married to Sal, and they are struggling for survival. The temptation to steal some timber to earn some extra money proves too much, but he is caught and tried at the Old Bailey. The death sentence he is given is transmuted to a life term in Australia. And so the Thornhills leave for Australia, where William, with Sal loyally alongside him, serves six years of his sentence before gaining a pardon.

This much is based on fact. Grenville was even able to read her ancestor’s words given in his own defence at the trial, and used them along with other information to construct a London history that thoroughly immerses the reader in the world of a Thames lighterman. The evidence for what happened to the Thornhills on arrival in Australia proved considerably harder to find. The second part of the book is therefore not based so closely on one man, but is an amalgamation of the stories available from the area and the time.

The Thornhills take up residence on a piece of land on the Hawkesbury River. They work hard to farm it, and to make it become somewhere they can call home. But there is a problem. A group of people live there. They are the Darug people. They appear to find the white settlers amusing, but the settlers are scared. They do not understand the lifestyle and with no common language, they find it hard to assert their ‘ownership’ of the land. There are a mixture of reactions – some people find a way to exchange goods, and get along well with the Darug. Others are violent towards them and kill and enslave them. The Thornhills are in the middle. They do some small scale bartering, but they are also keen to protect their land from these ‘savages’. They do ultimately believe that their way is best – working hard to farm the land, but there are moments when they begin to realise that the Darug have a valid way of life too, even if it does not involve the same processes as their own. They even try to learn things from the Darug, although they are less than pleased to discover that their son has spent a lot of time with them and learnt a lot.

This is a beautifully written book, not so much about the desire of Europeans to conquer the world, but about two societies with very different values clashing. It is ultimately about people trying to survive – the Darug, trying to survive while people invade their land, and the settlers, trying to survive after being shipped halfway round the world. It tells of a very sad chapter in history, which still has ramifications today, but tries to do so without generalisations. It is not about political decisions, but about the choices of individuals caught up in that period of time.

This book was much enjoyed by most members of the group, with most people agreeing that they would be keen to read more by this author, and sparked an interesting debate on the issues raised when two different societies meet.

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