Kate Grenville’s work of historical fiction, The Secret River, was inspired by her own family history. The main character in this story, William Thornhill, was born into an impoverished family living in the London of 1777. He roamed the streets of London with his brothers and a couple of friends, Dan and Collarbone, but his best friend was Sal Middleton. Sal’s father was a waterman and he, his wife and Sal lived in relative comfort.
When William was thirteen years old his mother died and shortly afterwards his father also, and the responsibility for the family’s welfare came to rest upon his shoulders. Between William’s work at the shipyard and his older sister Lizzie bringing in a little income, they managed to scrape together a living. When William turned fourteen, Lizzie became ill and was unable to work. Around the same time the Thames froze over, resulting in no work for William. The family began to starve.
It was at this point that Sal’s father stepped in. After the loss of yet another child, Mr. Middleton knew that no son would ever be born to him and his wife, so he decided to take William on as an apprentice and teach him the waterman’s trade.
At the end of his seven year apprenticeship, William married Sal. He could hardly believe the turn his life had taken.
Eight years later, his life took another turn and he and Sal with their two young children, stepped off the convict ship, Alexander, and onto Sydney Cove.
The rest of the book recounts their lives in the new colony and the effects of William’s decision to take up land belonging to the Darug people on the Hawkesbury River after he had earned his freedom.
Some important themes were portrayed in this book. The emancipated William Thornhill became an oppressor himself. This was evident in his behaviour to the convicts assigned to him when he was given his freedom, one of whom was his former childhood friend, Dan. His treatment of the Dharug people reflected the treatment he experienced from his ‘betters,’ the English upperclass. As far as they were concerned, he was subhuman. The strata mentality of London was transferred to this new land.
The author gave a tangible picture of life in early Sydney and her descriptions of the Hawkesbury River were well captured. I thought she was fairly even-handed in her portrayal of the interactions between the newly arrived settlers and the Aboriginal inhabitants. There were misunderstandings on both sides and the treatment of the Aboriginal people mirrored what was suffered by those English unfortunates who were considered little more than animals.
This is the first book I’ve read by Australian author Kate Grenville, and in fact, the first modern work of historical fiction I’ve read in a long time. I liked her style of writing, it was descriptive and engaging, but the book was spoilt for me by the inclusion of some obscene and profane language that I didn’t think enhanced the narrative. If it had been otherwise I would have considered using the book as part of our Australian History studies.
I’ve read a number of books in the same genre (Australian Historical fiction) but written closer to the time period. For the Term of His Natural Life
is one that immediately comes to mind. It’s a harrowing tale that doesn’t water down the cruelty and senselessness of Australia’s convict days, but it does so without using the type of language so many modern authors seem to find necessary to include.