Secret River (Grenville)

The Secret River (Thornhill Trilogy 1)
Kate Grenville, 2006
Canongate U.S.
334 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780802197795

Winner, 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize

The Orange Prize–winning author Kate Grenville recalls her family’s history in an astounding novel about the pioneers of New South Wales. Already a best seller in Australia, The Secret River is the story of Grenville’s ancestors, who wrested a new life from the alien terrain of Australia and its native people. William Thornhill, a Thames bargeman, is deported to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia in 1806.

In this new world of convicts and charlatans, Thornhill tries to pull his family into a position of power and comfort. When he rounds a bend in the Hawkesbury River and sees a gentle slope of land, he becomes determined to make the place his own. But, as uninhabited as the island appears, Australia is full of native people, and they do not take kindly to Thornhill’s theft of their home.

The Secret River is the tale of Thornhill’s deep love for his small corner of the new world, and his slow realization that if he wants to settle there, he must ally himself with the most despicable of the white settlers, and to keep his family safe, he must permit terrifying cruelty to come to innocent people. (From the publisher.)

The other two books in the Thornhill Trilogy are (2) The Lieutenant ... and (3) Sarah Thornhill

Author Bio 
Birth—October 14, 1950
Where—Sydney, Australia
Education—B.A. University of Sydney; M.A. University of   
Awards—Vogel Award (Australia); Orange Prize;
   Commonwealth Writers Prize, Short-listed, Booker Prize
Currently—lives in Sydney, Australia

Kate Grenville was born in Sydney, Australia. After completing an Arts degree at Sydney University she worked in the film industry (mainly as an editor) before living in the UK and Europe for several years and starting to write.

In 1980 she went to the USA and completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado, where her teachers included Ron Sukenick, Robert Steiner and Steve Katz.

On her return to Australia in 1983 she worked at the Subtitling Unit for SBS Television. In 1984 her first book, a collection of stories—Bearded Ladies—was published.

Since then she's published six novels and four books about the writing process (one co-written with Sue Woolfe).

The Secret River (2005) has won many prizes, including the Commonwealth Prize for Literature and the Christina Stead Prize, and has been an international best-seller. (It also formed the basis for a Doctorate of Creative Arts from University of Technology, Sydney) The Idea of Perfection (2000) won the Orange Prize.

Her other works of fiction have been published to acclaim in Australia and overseas and have won state and national awards.  Much-loved novels such as Lilian's Story (1985), Dark Places (1995), and Joan Makes History (1988) have become classics, admired by critics and general readers alike.

Lilian's Story was filmed starring Ruth Cracknell, Toni Collette and Barry Otto. Dream House was filmed under the title Traps, starring Jacqueline MacKenzie.

Kate Grenville's novels have been widely published in translation, and her books about the writing process are used in many writing courses in schools and universities.

She lives in Sydney with her family. (From the author's website.)

Book Reviews 
Magnificent.... an unflinching exploration of modern Australia’s origins.... Grenville’s psychological acuity, and the sheer gorgeousness of her descriptions of the territory being fought over, pulls us ever deeper into a time when one community’s opportunity spelled another’s doom.
The New Yorker

The most remarkable quality of Kate Grenville's new novel is the way it conveys the enormous tragedy of Australia's founding through the moral compromises of a single ordinary man. The Secret River reminds us that national history may be recorded as a succession of larger-than-life leaders and battles, but in fact a country arises from the accretion of personal dreams, private sacrifices and, often, hidden acts of cruelty.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

The stage is set for a confrontation that seems inevitable but never predestined. Grenville is too sly a writer for that. Imperceptibly heightening the suspense, she draws you into Thornhill's London past, then into his struggle to carve a homestead out of an astonishing land that warps reality, tilting perception toward hallucination.... Grenville's admirably plain novel is equally subtle in its portrait of what a man is and what—to his own horror—he can become.
Anna Mundow - Boston Globe

An Australian novelist of impeccable talents conjures this New South Wales as few writers could.... With sentences so astonishingly muscular and right that readers will dream the landscape at night, will flick an imaginary mosquito from their ears.... Unforgettable.... Grenville delivers Thornhill’s emotional journey as meticulously as she charts the sights and sounds of this bewildering New South Wales.... Perfectly rendered. The Secret River is a masterwork, a book that transcends historical fiction and becomes something deeply contemporary and pressing.... Nothing save for genius can explain the quality of this book, the extraordinary—one might even say alchemical—transformation of historical details into story, language into poetry. Against every measure with which a book might be judged, this one transcends. This one deserves every prize it has already received, and every prize yet to come.
Beth Kephart - Chicago Tribune

Orange Prize-winning Grenville's Australian bestseller is an eye-opening tale of the settlement of New South Wales by a population of exiled British criminals. Research into her own ancestry informs Grenville's work, the chronicle of fictional husband, father and petty thief William Thornhill and his path from poverty to prison, then freedom. Crime is a way of life for Thornhill growing up in the slums of London at the turn of the 19th century—until he's caught stealing lumber. Luckily for him, a life sentence in the penal colony of New South Wales saves him from the gallows. With his wife, Sal, and a growing flock of children, Thornhill journeys to the colony and a convict's life of servitude. Gradually working his way through the system, Thornhill becomes a free man with his own claim to the savage land. But as he transforms himself into a trader on the river, Thornhill realizes that the British are not the first to make New South Wales their home. A delicate coexistence with the native population dissolves into violence, and here Grenville earns her praise, presenting the settler-aboriginal conflict with equanimity and understanding. Grenville's story illuminates a lesser-known part of history—at least to American readers-with sharp prose and a vivid frontier family.
Publishers Weekly

In this follow-up to her Orange Prize-winning The Idea of Perfection, Australian writer Grenville turns to her own family history for inspiration. To depict the settling of her native land, Grenville focuses on William Thornhill, an illiterate bargeman driven to steal to survive hard times in London. When his death sentence is commuted to extradition to New South Wales (which would later become Australia), Thornhill and his growing family again find themselves struggling to make ends meet. When Thornhill tries to pull himself up in the world by laying claim to a plot of land along the Hawkesbury River, he finds himself at war with the native people. The narrative offers a fascinating look at the uneasy coexistence between the settlers and the aborigines, as well as at the internal pressures of a marriage where husband and wife nurture contradictory dreams. Thornhill and his wife, Sal, are interesting and complex characters, and the story builds in intensity toward an inevitable climax. Recommended. —Evelyn Beck, Piedmont Technical Coll., Greenwood, SC
Library Journal

(For Adult/High School) William Thornhill, a boatman in pre-Victorian London, escapes the harsh circumstances of his lower-class, hard-scrabble life and ends up a prosperous, albeit somehow unsatisfied, settler in Australia. After being caught stealing, he is sentenced to death; the sentence is commuted to transportation to Australia with his pregnant wife. Readers are filled with a sense of foreboding that turns out to be well founded. Life is difficult, but through hard work and initiative the Thornhills slowly get ahead. During his sentence, William has made his living hauling goods on the Hawkesbury River and thirsting after a piece of virgin soil that he regularly passes. Once he gains his freedom, his family moves onto the land, raises another rude hut, and plants corn. The small band of Aborigines camping nearby seems mildly threatening: William cannot communicate with them; they lead leisurely hunter/gatherer lives that contrast with his farming labor; and they appear and disappear eerily. They are also masterful spearmen, and Thornhill cannot even shoot a gun accurately. Other settlers on the river want to eliminate the Aborigines. The culture clash becomes violent, with the protagonist unwillingly drawn in. The characters are sympathetically and colorfully depicted, and the experiencing of circumstances beyond any single person's control is beautifully shown. —Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
School Library Journal

A riveting narrative unfolds into a chilling allegory of the mechanics and the psychology of colonialism in the veteran Australian author's rich historical novel. In a follow-up to her Orange Prize-winning The Idea of Perfection (2002), Grenville reaches back to Australia's origins, in an expansive tale similar in plot and theme to Patrick White's 1976 masterpiece, A Fringe of Leaves. It's the story of William Thornhill, a London bargeman who turns to petty crime after an impoverished childhood and when marriage and paternity severely test his survival skills. Sentenced to death for theft (he stole a load of wood), he receives a commutation of his sentence thanks to the emotional importunings of his devoted wife Sal, and when he is "transported" to New South Wales as a convict laborer, William's family dutifully accompanies him. Australia beckons as a land of opportunity, though the hamlet of Sydney is at this time (1806) little more than a cluster of crude huts. William adapts to this strange new environment, following the examples of other convicts and fortune-hunters, and stakes out a parcel of land (shaped, with fine symbolic irony, like a man's thumb), grandly naming it Thornhill's Point. Then things begin unraveling. Native aborigines who already inhabit the land, and to whom the concept of ownership is utterly alien, are initially passive, then resentful, eventually confrontational. Misunderstandings crop up and multiply, and subsequent actions lead to a horrific massacre—in which William grimly, reluctantly participates. His "triumph" is plaintively contrasted to the stoical endurance of the aborigine Jack, the lone survivor of the massacre, who possesses a primal connection to the land and its spirit that William's act of "ownership" can never displace. No fingers are pointed: We understand only too well what brought these people together and then thrust them apart, and the story's resolution achieves genuine tragic grandeur. Grenville's best, and a giant leap forward.
Kirkus Reviews

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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