Monday, November 16, 2020

A New Land

The Secret River
The Secret River 

“This place had been here long before him. It would go on sighing and breathing and being itself after he had gone, the land lapping on and on, watching, waiting, getting on with its own life.”   ― Kate Grenville, The Secret River

On the last day of the previous century I was concerned as to what might happen when the new century began. There were warnings that computer systems might fail and "Y2K" plans had been underway for months to deal with this issue. As I started to work on that day, I turned on my computer and pulled up the website for Sydney, Australia, which booming city was already celebrating the new century with fireworks. All was well as I returned to my work in Chicago. 

I note this episode because the Sydney in Kate Grenville's novel, The Secret River, is set at the beginning of the nineteenth century and it is a city of ramshackle buildings and tents, more like our old west than the metropolis it has since become. “It was a sad scrabbling place, this town of Sydney.” (p 75) This contrast highlights the changes that were started in large part by the prisoners, like William Thornhill and his family, who were exiled to Australia and formed the beginnings of that country.

Sent to Australia because he tried to steal from his boss in London, William Thornhill became one of the first settlers in the Australian wilderness. The novel describes the conflict between the earliest settlers of the country and the natives of Australia as they clashed for ownership of the land. Themes include ownership, racism, social class and hope.

Thornhill grew up poor in London but dreamed of a better future. He thought he was on his way to this better future when Mr. Middleton took him on as an apprentice as a waterman. He completed his apprenticeship successfully and married Sarah “Sal” Middleton, his childhood sweetheart. His father-in-law gave Thornhill his own boat as a wedding gift. Things were going well for the new couple until both Mr. and Mrs. Middleton got sick and died. Their care used up all of the money the two had in savings. Their property, including the boat Mr. Middleton had given Thornhill, had to be sold to pay their remaining debts. As a result Thornhill had to go back to working for others and was unable to make a living for his family. He was caught stealing in an attempt to feed his family and was sentenced to death by hanging.

Thornhill received a pardon for his crime and was allowed to go to Australia to serve his sentence. The place was described as something “out of a dream, a fierce landscape of chasms and glowering cliffs and a vast unpredictable sky.” After one year of service with his wife as an overseer, Thornhill earned his ticket of leave allowing him to work for whoever he wanted. He eventually partnered up with Thomas Blackwood an old friend from London who transported crops and supplies to and from the settlers along the Hawkesbury River. Thornhill fell in love with a piece of property he saw along the river during his first trip. He convinced Sal they could earn enough money to return to England if they claimed a plot of land and farmed it. Eventually, though, Thornhill “saw what he had never seen before: that there could be no future for the Thornhills back in London.” (p 175) With this came the sad realization that he could not share this feeling with his wife who continued to dream of their eventual return.

Once they were on the land in the wilderness, the Thornhills were regularly threatened by the natives who once had freely roamed the land. Although other settlers abused and even killed the natives, Thornhill just wanted to be left alone. Even though he wasn’t purposefully cruel to the natives, they came and stole most of his corn one day. After he and his workers ran them off, they returned that night and set fire to what was left. The author portrays the differences between the aborigines and the settlers in a way that reminded me of the contrast between the image of Rousseau's natural man and the Weberian concept of the Protestant work ethic. The two views of life did not mix well at all.

When he was asked to assist a group of men going to ambush a camp of natives Thornhill agreed to go along and help. He knew his life would never be the same after he stooped to the level where he would help kill other human beings. After the natives were cleared from the area Thornhill and his family became successful on their land in Australia. They became the gentry they’d always dreamed of being in London. Even with his prosperity, Thornhill still used his telescope to scan the woods looking for the natives that once called that land their home.

The book conveys the emotions of those transported to New South Wales with a sensitivity that is transcendent. As they determine to make their place livable Thornhill thinks: “How had his life funnelled down to this corner, in which he had so little choice?” But, in this new land, he did have a choice and in choosing to defend his land and live he and his family became one of the founders of a new country.


Brian Joseph said...

Great review James. Though I am very aware of it. I do not think that I have read any fiction or non fiction about the Australian immigrants who were “transported”.

This sounds very rich and worth the read.

James said...

One thing that makes this novel even more poignant is that it was based on the ancestors of the author. While an historical novel, it is also a memoir of sorts and captures the feeling of the wild life during the early days of New South Wales.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi James, Agree a great review! Have you read The Saints by Orson Scott Card? I mention it because that's a book also that deals with immigration, moving from Manchester England to Utah in the 19th century. It was a wonderful read and this novel by Kate Grenville sounds very good too and I sense for Mrs. Thornhill the move was quite a shock, the city life of London and then the remoteness of Australia.

Marian H said...

I hadn't heard of this novel before, but am looking for Australian classics to read. It sounds very informative and thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing!

James said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I have read other books about the life of immigrants (my favorite is Ole Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth) and this was an amazing read with the rough life of the prisoner/settlers.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. This was certainly worthy of the accolades it has received and I think it compares favorably with the works of Peter Carey or Richard Flanagan like Oscar and Lucinda and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.