Kate Grenville, who wrote The Secret River, is one of Australia’s best known writers. She won the Orange Prize and has won or been short-listed for a great many other prestigious writing awards. I’ve read several of her previous books, but thought The Secret River was particularly good.
While I was reading this book, I thought the secret river in the title referred to the Hawkesbury River, where much of the story is set. Later, digging a little deeper, I learned that the name came from an anthropologist called W E H Stanner, who was referring to a secret river of blood, which flows through Australia’s history. This blood, to the collective shame of Australians, is that of the Aboriginal people, at the hands of the early settlers from England.
The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill, his wife Sal and their family. William grew up in a very poor family in London in the late 1700’s, escaping the slums for a very short while when he was taken on as an apprentice waterman with Sal’s father. When Sal’s parents fell ill and died, William and Sal found themselves starving in London’s slums. When William was caught stealing from his employer, he was saved from hanging, but transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life.
Sal was able to sail to Sydney on the same ship as William and on arrival, he was assigned to her as a convict. The government gave them a hut and a week’s supply of food to start them off in the new colony.
At first, the family found Sydney to be frightening and foreign in every possible way. William quickly found work transporting stores between the shore and visiting ships, while Sal opened a sly grog shop. They quickly made enough money for William to buy a boat of his own and started a business transporting stores up the Hawkesbury River to settlers. Both William and Sal are at first frightened of the Aboriginal people who they occasionally see around their hut.
William eventually received his pardon and although Sal was homesick for England and wanted to return, William realised that as a convict living in England again would be impossible, because of the taint that would follow the family for generations to come. These days, having a convict in the family give an Australian bragging rights, but in my grandmother’s time, to be the descendant of a convict was shameful and never to be spoken of.
On one trip up the Hawkesbury, William spied a piece of land which he became obsessed with. Other pardoned convicts had become landowners simply by squatting on a piece of land, building a hut and planting a crop. William convinced Sal to bring their family to live on this land for five years, promising her that in that time they will make enough money to return to England. They plant corn, although William continues to work the river trade. Eventually, the Thornhills are assigned two convicts of their own, and put them to work.
There are Aboriginal people living in a camp very close to where William and Sal build their hut. The Thornhills are at first frightened by the Aboriginals, who clearly want them to leave, but William refuses to leave and they uneasily co-exist for some time. The Aboriginals are naked, carry spears and have extraordinary bush skills. They have no common language with the settlers. Sometimes the Thornhills and the Aboriginals amuse each other and sometimes there are moments of misunderstanding which could turn violent but don’t. The rights of the Aboriginal people to the land were ignored, by the Thornhills and their neighbours. The primary reason is because the settlers believe that the land is to be owned and farmed, neither of which the Aboriginal people do, although they certainly manage the land using fire.
When the Aboriginal people pick William’s ripe corn, William is furious, seeing this action as theft, but for the Aboriginal people, this is exactly how they had always lived, taking and eating food as they need. The Thornhills and the Aboriginal people settle again into a lifestyle of uneasily co-existing, although one of their younger sons is friends with Aboriginal children and joins in their play and also their learning from the camp’s elders.
The cultural differences between the settlers and the Aboriginals are impossible to overcome, and although William had earlier promised Sal never to harm an Aboriginal person, their friends and neighbours take some terrible actions, to which William is a party to. The Aboriginal people fight back and a great many of the English people are killed or hurt also.
Kate Grenville certainly doesn’t shy away from putting the settlers in the wrong, clearly showing the terrible ways the Aboriginal people were treated. This is very unusual in Australian fiction, as in a lot of it the reader wouldn’t even realise that anyone else even lived in Australia when the English arrived. I grew up less than a kilometre from a beach called Massacre Bay, and until I was an adult, did not learn that this name was given because (allegedly), the Aboriginal men living in the area had been driven off the cliffs near this beach, while the women and children had been drowned in a nearby swamp. There was only one Aboriginal family attending the school I went to and they were treated terribly by the other children. To be an Aboriginal person when I was growing up was even worse than having a convict in the family.
The story of The Secret River is sad and depressing, but also fascinating because somehow, from all of the horror and violence during those early times, that is where the Australia that we have now came from.
The Secret River is to be made into a television miniseries. I don’t usually watch tv, but I will watch this when it comes.