The Secret River Summary
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In Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel The Secret River, William Thornhill is a nineteenth-century Englishman who, facing a death sentence for theft, is sent to Australia instead. The story examines the colonization of the land of the Aborigines by the Europeans. In 2006, Grenville published a work of nonfiction as a follow-up to The Secret River. In Searching for the SecretRiver, she tells of doing the research for the first book and of how that book was initially conceived as a biographical work about a familial ancestor Solomon Wiseman.
William Thornhill was born into poverty, leading to a life of crime in the slums of London. In 1806, he is convicted of stealing wood and sentenced to death. Instead of being executed, however, he and his family are sent to New South Wales in Australia. His first night in a convict settlement in Sydney includes his first encounter with an Aboriginal. When the man approaches Thornhill, seemingly out of nowhere, Thornhill tells him to, “Be off!” The native simply repeats his words back to him symbolically setting in motion the central conflict of the novel. Two very different groups are occupying the same land. The European convicts are not permitted to leave, the Aboriginals are spiritually part of the land and do not desire to leave.
A flashback shows the early life of Thornhill in London. He was apprenticed to a waterman named Mr. Middleton and spent seven years helping transport the upper class across the Thames River. He comes to resent the superior attitudes of the well-to-do and works hard to raise his lot in life. As he nears the end of his apprenticeship, Thornhill falls in love with Middleton’s daughter Sal; they marry on the day he is free. He continues to work the river using a boat that was a wedding gift from his former master. He is happy to have left the poverty of his past behind him but that feeling of security does not last long. An extended cold spell freezes the river and puts him out of work. Savings quickly dwindle and Middleton and his wife both die from an illness. Poverty stricken, William and Sal lose the family home and all of the boats to the authorities. William finds employment with another master, but does not earn enough on which to live and turns to stealing. When William is sentenced to death for his attempt to steal wood, Sal is able to have the sentence changed to deportation and they are sent to Australia. With them are their son Willie and a second child born during their passage that they name Dick.
They manage to adapt to life in the penal colony where William once again works as a waterman. He manages to steal small quantities of rum from the many barrels passing through the harbor and Sal opens a bar at their hut. After twelve months in the colony, William is able to leave. Rather than continue working under the new clerk, Mr. King, whose approach to his job makes William feel that his rum skimming would be found out, he gets a job working for Thomas Blackwood, whom he had known back in London. Blackwood has a boat and handles trade between Sydney and settlements along the Hawkesbury River.
While working along the river, William sees a plot of land that he vows he will one day claim and use to create a better life for his family. He refers to the land as Thornhill’s Point. William also meets Smasher Sullivan who is a settler who hates and oppresses any Aborigines he encounters. Blackwood hates Smasher and his racism as Blackwood respects the native people and always strove for a peaceful coexistence with them. When Blackwood retires, William borrows money from Mr. King and buys his boat. With his son Willie, he continues to run the trade route and his financial situation starts to improve. He shares with Sal his plan to settle in Thornhill’s Point but she is unenthusiastic, yet she agrees to give the arrangement five years with the hope of earning enough money to eventually leave the wilderness of Thornhill’s Point for a higher standard of living.
The family runs into difficulties with the Aborigines at Thornhill’s Point. They do not recognize William’s claim to the land and tensions mount until coming to a head when the natives strip William’s corn field. A skirmish ensues with several Aborigines being hurt. Sal worries about the safety of her sons and demands that the family leave Thornhill’s Point. William does not want to abandon the dream for which he has worked so hard. While still discussing whether to leave or stay, William and Sal see smoke at Saggity’s settlement down the river. William goes to help Saggity while Sal begins to pack. Finding Saggity wounded by Aborigines, William takes him for help but Saggity dies. This event triggers the settlers to fight to rid the area of the Aborigines and much violence follows. William is torn as he understands the position of the native people, but joins in the attack against them as the only way Sal will remain at Thornhill’s Point is if they are gone.
After a period of bloody slaughter, the Aborigines leave the area and are no longer a threat to the settlers along the Hawkesbury. William becomes a rich land owner and a member of the upper class. William’s happiness with his new status is tempered by feelings of guilt over his actions and their aftermath.
Discuss the extent to which the silent, silence and silences play an important role in Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River.
Early oppositional texts struck an accusatory note and described the suffering of the natives, which was left out of official versions of history (Attwood 1989, Chap. 6). These texts broke the literary silence concerning the bloodshed and displacement of early colonization. The later revisionist mode of writing contributed to a major reinterpretation of Australian history. (Brosch 228)
The settlement in Australia can be described without further ado as a disaster and most descendants tend to leave certain parts of Australian history out. All the human rights we – as evolutionary humans – tried to establish in the course of time were forgotten and displaced immediately. Just like the indigenous people of Australia were displaced in many regions of Australia in the early settlement. It took about 200 years for the indigenous Aborigines to get acknowledged as the rightful owners of the country, which was once taken – or ”took up” – from them. Brosch notes, that ”[t]he plot of the novel resolves around this taking up land, which was something all the former convicts and the free immigrants where encouraged to do, but the phrase glosses over the risk and bloodshed involved” (Brosch 230). The shedding of Aboriginal blood was kept silent about for a long time. Kate Grenville's The Secret River – the secret river of blood – unveils a new perspective of Australian history. Even though a lot of Australian literature already highlighted the problems of encounters between Aborigines and white settlers, this novel shows aspects of these encounters mostly faded out. According to Naomi Sidebotham, Kate Grenville's novel ”brings to the attention of the reader the way
the law permitted and legitimated the dispossession of Aboriginal people and, in so doing, it gives the reader access to the history of the law that was challenged in Mabo” (Sidebotham 159). I will show the relevance of aspects of the silent, silence and silences in Kate Grenville's novel The Secret River and why it is important for ”the Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future.”
Before discussing the elements in The Secret River, we need to acknowledge that the publication of this novel lead to severe controversy regarding readers and literary critics.
When Grenville (2005) claimed her The Secret River (2005) would rise above the parochial squabbles of the then raging history wars by getting ‘inside the experience’ of the past, she provoked a strong response from some academic and professional historians. […] However, clearly Grenville’s Secret River (2005) has
invited serious questions about the relationship between history, literature, and public ethics in contemporary Australia. (Rodwell 25)
While the novel is considered a fictional work, at the same time it is full of historical facts and influences the reader to the extent of maybe even rethinking about the past of Australia and the settlement. It offers a new point of view on this delicate topic.
Kate’s silence in the face of the writers’ questions functions as acknowledgement and understanding of the impossibility of reaching an ‘imaginary’ past through material objects. This acknowledgement, in turn, becomes the marginalia to Sal’s journey, commenting on the penal and colonial condition and the nostalgia which plagues Sal. (Boulanger-Mashberg 5)
However The Secret River should be considered as fiction and consumed carefully. Whenever new reasonable perspectives are presented people tend to forget previously announced facts. Also due to the dedication of this novel to the Aboriginal people, and the acknowledgment of a veiled historical record – orally and written – people may tend to move one, which ”may
only be a journey to a new kind of forgetting” according to Mark McKenna (Sidebotham 158).
Kate Grenville's motivation for writing a novel, which focuses on the confrontation of white settlers and Aboriginal people, can be mainly attributed to the research in her own family history, where she found out that her ”great-great-great grandfather Solomon Wiseman, shipped to Sydney in the early 1800s” where he ”must have had contact with the Aboriginals” and later ”turned himself into a wealthy landowner on the Hawkesbury River” (cf. Brosch 228). This is pretty much the story of William Thornhill who ”grew up, in the last decades of the eighteenth century” in London, where ”no one could move an elbow without hitting the wall or the table or sister or a brother” (cf. Grenville 9). After being pardoned and deported for the time of ”his natural life”, William starts a new life in a new land and tries to rise from the dirt to become a wealthy landowner. However, he pays the price and also makes others pay, not in hard cash but in terms of suppression and an act of silencing.
The characters in The Secret River can be generally divided into two groups. At the one hand there are the white settlers, who try to cooperate and interact with the Indigenous people. They recognize the Aborigines as the legitimate owners of the land and encounter them with respect and caution. Mrs. Herring and Thomas Blackwood can be assigned to this party. On the side are Smasher and Sagitty, of whom especially Smasher always brags about his harsh way of treating the Indigenous people, which serves as an extreme and shocking example of failures in the early settlement. His ”mistreatment of Aborigines and his cruel enslavement of an Aboriginal woman” (cf. Kossew 16) is explicitly documented in Kate Grenville's novel, but presumably would have been a historic event, that white settlers maintain 'silence' about, orally as well as in the written record. William Thornhill actually just wants to own his 'hundred acres' and escape from the life – as a poor thief – he lived in London. He eventually turns into a ”hardly recognizable William Thornhill” (cf. Grenville
328). No matter how much he ”achieves” he is never really satisfied with what he has, as we can see when Grenville writes: ”The finished place was not quite what Thornhill had pictured. Something was wrong with the way the pieces fitted together: some were too big, others too small” (Grenville 329). However he is easily manipulated by Blackwood and therefore led to participate in the massacre in the Aboriginal camp towards the end of the novel. Thornhill is kind of naive, which causes the reader to follow the protagonist on every step, but at the same time fret about his actions, which actually do not seem to fit his character.
At the end of the raid of the Aboriginal camp Grenville writes, ”[t]he sun hardened around them. The clearing had a broken look, the bodies lying like so much fallen timber, the dirt trampled and marked with dark stains. And a great shocked silence hanging over everything” (Grenville 323). The settlers come and leave marks, not only on the Aboriginal people, but also on the land itself. And when everyone is dead there is a 'silence hanging over everything'. Dead people do not talk. The Aborigines are eventually silenced once and for all. However, there is also the silence of the white settlers 'hanging over everything', because they already agreed beforehand on not telling anyone about their plans and actions. In fact Thornhill does not even tell his wife Sal about it, which drives them apart even more and leaves a blank space – silence – in their relationship.
According to Brosch, ”[a] 'toxic silence' spreads first between husband and wife, then in the family and in the larger community, which is a response typical of collective guilt,” which in fact is the case. At first, when Will and Sal are still in London, they share everything and do not keep any thoughts from each other. This soon changes when they are in Sydney and Thornhill seems to withdraw more and more into a world he already built in his head. He makes plans without asking Sal about her opinion, but at the same time gives her a little hope that they will return to London some time. Sal seems to recognize the plans his husband has