Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Secret River by Kate Grenville --A Story of Transportation to New South Wales

Serendipity? Coincidence? Another person chose this book for us to read in the Short Book Club, just as I had returned from Australia, which I had not visited for nine years. But it did tie in nicely with some of the historical places I explored on my visit there.

The trigger for Kate Grenville's award winning novel The Secret River, published in 2005, was her participation in the Walk for Reconciliation* across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000.

*In May 2000 the bridge was closed to vehicular access for a day to allow a special reconciliation march—the "Walk for Reconciliation"—to take place. This was part of a response to an Aboriginal Stolen Generations inquiry, which found widespread suffering had taken place amongst Australian Aboriginal children forcibly placed into the care of white parents in a little-publicised state government scheme. Around a million (others estimate a quarter of a million which seems more likely) Australians walked the bridge in a symbolic gesture of crossing a divide.

It started her thinking about her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, a convict, who eventually settled on the Hawkesbury River, about 50 miles north of the original settlement of Sydney, where he operated a ferry service at a place still called Wiseman's Ferry. She began to research his life, intending to write a biography. But it was difficult to find out enough detail about Wiseman himself so she changed it to a work of fiction and dedicated it to the "Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future".

In the novel, William Thornhill, a waterman/lighterman on the Thames River at London is found guilty of theft in 1806 and sentence to transportation to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. The first part of the book chronicles his life growing up in London and she paints a very bleak picture of the poverty and petty crime which existed in the lives of so many at that time. Constantly cold and hungry, most barely survived but William eventually does well enough by marrying his childhood sweetheart whose father, the man to whom he was apprenticed, has what appears to be a thriving transportation business. However it all unravels with his father-in-law's untimely death and he does what he can to support his family, including stealing for which he is finally transported.

His pregnant wife Sal, a truly resilient individual and his family accompany him, to New South Wales, with the new child born on the journey. At Sydney he is bound over to his wife as his "keeper" and he begins work as a waterman once again as his skills are needed in the fledgling colony. He plies his trade on a boat between Sydney and the Hawkesbury River, the secret river, whose entrance lies hidden in a large body of water called Broken Bay, where they pick up produce from farmers who eke out a living there, supplying the new colony at Sydney Cove.

With each visit William, who by now has regained his freedom, becomes more determined to move there and claim 100 acres which is legally permitted to all. His dream is to become a landowner but Sal is not so easy to convince as she longs to return to England. They strike a bargain, five years in the Hawkesbury River area and then back to London.

Thus they begin life again in the new area, building from nothing and besides continuing his activities on the water William becomes a "farmer", planting corn. While this land is legally his the aborigines who were there before him continue to live in a camp close by and uneasily the new settlers cohabit the land with the original occupiers, but in such different ways. The hunter/gatherers live off the bounty of the land while the new settlers endeavour to shape it to their will.

Tension between the settlers and the aborigines finally erupt into a violent confrontation and William is drawn into the fray. As we all know from history, the settlers did prevail over the native population in Australia and by force in many instances, this being but one example. As one would expect and paralleling Kate's own ancestor, William and his family build a life there and never return to England.

Kate Grenville has given us a very fine book, beautifully written and with great sensitivity. While the beginning part in London is painful reading, it makes us understand how easy it was to justify petty theft in order to survive. She is a master at portraying a scene, evoking the reality of it for us, both in London and in Australia. While William is not always likeable, she makes him a person you can understand and feel empathy towards. Like many other Australian novelists she makes the land a big part of the story, showing William's ever increasing feelings for it as well as the importance and respect for it that the aborigines have.

I found it a very compelling read, finishing it in two days. Everyone in The Short Book Club enjoyed it and it provoked one of the best discussions we have had in a long time. In fact I was so impressed by The Secret River that I am currently reading Kate Grenville's Searching for the Secret River, in which she chronicles her research for the book.

Can I recommend the book? I would make that a resounding yes and not only for Australians. The SBC has members from Germany, Wales, England, the USA, New Zealand, Canada and Australia so I would say it is a good read for anyone.

*taken from this page.


CherryPie said...

It sounds like a good read, I shall have to add it to my list.

Carver said...

Sounds like a fascinating book JMB. I always enjoy your book reviews.

Dr.John said...

It does sound like a good read indeed.

Rositta said...

That was great, I'm always looking for new stuff to read, thanks...ciao

jmb said...

I'm sure you will enjoy it Cherie.

Thanks Carver and you Dr John.

I hope you like the book too Rositta.

Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I'd really like to read that. Thanks for the review.