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March 12, 2010

The Secret River

Kate Grenville - ISBN - 9781841959146

A more interesting book would be hard to find. Well written with a tight plot and interesting characters; rooted in truth, while not literal historic fiction. The setting is primarily Australia in the early 19th century. The principal character, a "river man" and a minor thief (as all of them were) is sentenced to die, but offered an alternative: be transported to the penal colony recently founded in Sydney, New South Wales . . . later to become Australia.

With considerable and interesting character developing prologue, the plot begins in earnest as he is stripped of everything, spends nine months in transit (in fetters), with his wife and young son little better quartered in a different section of the ship. Within hours of his arrival they face a hostile foreign land in which Will Thornhill considers himself sentenced to die, and almost immediately face their first black aboriginal. Not at all certain he's equipped, his wife makes it alright with her determination and cheery countenance. Together they'll make it, though she holds out for a return to London in the future; a hope she maintains thru much of the book, and one not supported by Will.

There is majesty in Grenville's descriptive language, and an earnest awe as she describes the family's trials which over years make them first free, then struggling colonists in which situation Will again becomes a river man, if of a different kind, and finally a prototypical Aussie of some means and success.

The narrative is full of observations and insights as she describes their settlement and progress in primitive Australia. Will reflects that "a man's life seemed a cruel race: to get himself and his family above the high water mark, safe from the tides and contrary winds, before his body gave out." Being a river man is a hard life, and along the way they come to grips with the painful fact that the only way to acquire land is to take it from the aboriginals. They also gain insight into the complex life of these seemingly quite primitive natives, as they (the English) struggle to farm a harsh land, while observing the "easy life" of the ancients, so well adapted to the environment.

They learn that there is no forgiveness. The "honest" settlers, while few in number, scorn those who have arrived for reasons other than a change of venue. As well, that should they to return to London they'd still be rejected; once a felon, always a felon. Their fate is sealed.

Eventually there is a local war over land, which begins as the aboriginals try to frighten the settlers away. It ends in a holocaust . . . the natives are simply eliminated. The Thornhills and their neighbors are emancipated, sort of, and though their life continues to depend to some extent on fraud, it is no longer theft. They acquire wealth beyond anything they could have dreamed in London, and accept their life in their new homeland. Content . . . but . . . Grenville is subtle but still manages to portray the continuing unrest of a gratifying if troubling "settlement."

A pleasant read, explaining as it does the realities of early Australia when the vast majority of settlers were sentenced there to make a new life and a new home. Seems for most that it was a fortunate event.

Posted by Curmudgeon at March 12, 2010 4:21 PM