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Secret River (Grenville) - Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions 
1. “Strangers”, we are introduced to William Thornhill, who has been transported to New South Wales as a criminal.  “There was no need of lock, of door, of wall: this was a prison whose bars were ten thousand miles of water” (p. 3). Considering William’s confrontation on the first night, is the sentence ironic?  In these few pages how is the alien landscape and his visceral reaction to it established?  Why do you think that Grenville chose to begin the book with this out-of-sequence chapter?

2. Part 1 of the novel puts us back at Thornhill’s desperately impoverished childhood in a large family in London at the early part of the nineteenth-century.  “He grew up a fighter.  By the time he was ten years old the other boys knew to leave him alone.  The rage warmed him and filled him up.  It was a kind of friend” (p. 15). Discuss the effects of poverty on Thornhill and how it shapes the rest of his life.

3. In the London portion of The Secret River, readers may notice similarities with Charles Dickens’s depiction of the poverty and moral tone in nineteenth-century London.  The Dickens version has become an archetype.  Grenville is very effective at evoking the period, as well. How does her portrayal differ from the familiar Dickensian one?   What devices does she use to articulate the era?

4. William meets Sal Middleton, through his sister Lizzie, “She was no beauty, but had a smile that lit up everything around her.  The only shadow in her life was the graveyard where her brothers and sisters were buried” (p. 17).  Talk about the early relationship between William and Sal.  What is the attraction of each to the other?  How do the differences in their early lives affect their relationship throughout the years of their marriage?

5. William spends seven years as an apprentice waterman to Sal’s father. “Folk always needed to get from one side of the river to the other, and coal and wheat always had to be got to the docks from the ships that brought them. As long as he kept his health he would never outright starve.  He swore to himself that he would be the best apprentice, the strongest, quickest, cleverest. That when freed in seven years he would be the most diligent waterman on the whole of the Thames”(p. 25). What important lessons in addition to his trade do William learn from this experience?  What do we learn about William’s fundamental character? At this point, what kind of a man would you say that he is?

6. After William marries Sal and they have their first child, their luck starts to change, and in spite of William’s good intentions they are driven to thievery.  When inevitably William is caught, convicted, and sentenced to death, how do the differences in their characters (refer back to Question 4) affect the outcome?  What kind of a woman is Sal?

7. Grenville’s descriptions of Sydney are very vivid and quickly establish a stark contrast with the urban landscape of London.  “It was a raw scraped little place.  There were a few rutted streets, either side of the stream threading its way down to the beach, but beyond them the buildings were connected by rough tracks like animals’ runs, as kinked among the rocks and trees as the trees themselves” (p. 79). How do the Thornhills react and adjust to their new surroundings and circumstances?

8. After  Thornhill and Blackwood encounter Smasher Sullivan for the first time, Blackwood advises William, “Ain’t nothing in this world just for the taking.... A man got to pay a fair price for taking.... Matter of give a little, take a little” (p. 104). What does Blackwood already know and what is he trying to express to his friend?

9. When Thornhill goes up the river with Thomas Blackwood in The Queen a whole new world opens up to him.  His hunger to own land is immediate and almost atavistic.  Sal on the other hand is appalled at the thought of settling the land and becoming farmers.  “Perhaps it was because she had not felt the rope around her neck.  That changed a man forever” (p. 111).  Do you agree with William’s reasoning?

10. Right from the beginning when the Thornhills stake out “their” land there is always a vague feeling of intrinsic threat.  “My own, he kept saying to himself.  My place. Thornhill’s place.  But the wind in the leaves up on the ridge was saying something else entirely” (p. 139). Nothing in William’s experience has prepared him for the mysteries of this new land and its people. What does the land mean to him? What are his biggest delusions?   Did you find him aggressive, ignorant, innocent, naïve, full of rationales? Explain.

11. What is the biggest difference in Aboriginal culture and the white settlers’ culture?  How does this impact everything that happens from the time that the Thornhills move from Sydney?

12. “For himself, he could take or leave a lot of them, but he made them welcome for Sal’s sake” (p. 162).  Discuss your impressions of each of the Thornhill’s neighbors—Saggity, Mrs. Herring, the Webbs, Loveday, and of course Smasher and Blackwood.  Smasher and Blackwood are at two extremes in their attitudes and behavior. Where would you place the others in relation to these two?  How would you rank Thornhill?  How do the white settlers interact?  Are they helpful or harmful to one another?

13. In Kate Grenville’s depiction of Sal and of Mrs. Herring, what do you infer about the women who helped to settle New South Wales?  What was Sal’s role, and how did it influence her behavior toward her husband and children?  What always seems to keep her somewhat removed from William? Do you think that it took a certain kind of woman to endure the hardships of resettlement, or did all women of the lower classes have to endure difficult lives? What is the impression of women settler’s place in the history of Australia that you draw from this novel?

14. Thornhill goes to Sydney to acquire two convict servants, Dan and Ned, from amongst the newly transported English prisoners. Although they come from very similar circumstances, what makes Thornhill stand apart?  How is it possible for him to slip into the role of master with such ease?  Had the years in New South Wales changed his basic nature?

15. When young Dick is learning to make fire from one of the natives, we see that his perceptions differ greatly from his fathers.  “Going on five, that child born at sea between one world and another was a solemn creature with a dreamy face in which Thornhill could not see any echo of his own.  He could sit for hours crooning to himself and fiddling about with a few stones” (p. 119).  In the end, Dick goes to live with Blackwood. What does this connote?

16. When things start to go very badly for the settlers, the government, in the persons of Captain McCallum and his soldiers, are sent to resolve the situation. There are many other historical occasions where this tragic scenario played itself out. Why is their plan doomed to failure?

17. Once the Thornhill’s corn crop is ruined, Sal’s forbearance is pushed past its limit.  After she delivers her ultimatum, what changes forever between husband and wife? How does this change affect the outcome? Do you think it was inevitable?

18. Discuss the final battle scene as seen through the eyes of William Thornhill.  “He closed his eyes.  Like the old man on his knees he felt he might become something other than a human, something that did not do things in this sticky clearing that could never be undone” (p. 308). In today’s terms we would characterize Thornhill as conflicted.  What are the elements at work in his psyche?

19. At the end it appears that William and Sal have realized all that they set out to do.  They are successful, rich, and leading a life they could never have dreamed of back in London. However, their beautiful, grand new house isn’t quite right and Sal’s garden will not grow. Why, in spite of hard work and sacrifice don’t they have everything they wanted?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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