Friday, February 8, 2013

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville

Curious story. A kind of historical fiction that I can live with.

In 1806 William Thornhill, illiterate waterman, is convicted of theft and sentenced to hang. By paying for letters pleading his case to be sent to authorities, he manages to get his sentence commuted. He is sent to New South Wales (now Australia), along with his wife and small children, to live out a life sentence there.

The system in New South Wales allows Thornhill to work his way out of his life sentence. He is still "branded" as a former convict but is able to be free on the continent. Working on the water again, he discovers a piece of land that is fairly remote from any kind of civilization, and he covets that land. In time he moves his family there and they take on the task of creating a home and growing food, while he continues to run his boat.

Throughout this time he encounters "savages". There is a conflict, because they were there first, although they don't tend to have the same concept of property ownership. Thornhill and eventually his convict workers push against the land, forcing it into submission. He even makes a kind of peace with the savages, an uneasy one.

His wife Sal is strong and capable but not in love with this land. Thornhill is deeply in love with his wife and struggles with his two loves: the land and Sal. Eventually the savage situation comes to a head, an ugly and violent one. Throughout the book the tension is almost unbearable. In a way the ultimate "resolution" was almost a relief.

I read The Fatal Shore years ago. It impressed me with its details of convict life in early Australia and the settling of the continent at the expense of the aborigines. I remember life for the convicts being harder than indicated in this book, but there were different settlements. I have no reason to doubt the details in this book, written by an Australian writer and praised by fellow Australians. This fiction story fills out the story I read so long ago.

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