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The Secret River by Kate Grenville
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The Secret River (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Kate Grenville

Series: Colonial Trilogy (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,5101234,183 (3.81)545
In 1806 William Thornhill is transportd for life from the slums of London to New South Wales. His arrival with wife Sal and their children at first feels like a death sentence. But Thornhil discovers the colony can turn a person into a free man and eight years later he sails up the Hawkesbury and claims his own patch of ground. However, from the moment he sets foot on this land he has the feeling of being watched by the original inhabitants, the Darug people. There is tension between the Aboriginals and the new settlers and all are finding different ways to deal with it. As the situation spirals out of control Thornhill has to make the toughest decision of his life. Paul Blackwell's reading captures the hopes, dreams, conflict and struggle at the heart of this historical masterpiece.… (more)
Member:lauralkeet
Title:The Secret River
Authors:Kate Grenville
Info:Canongate U.S. (2006)
Collections:Removed from Library, Rest of World
Rating:****
Tags:read in 2008, booker prize shortlist, historical fiction, borrowed, australian authors, fiction, woman authors

Work details

The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2005)

Recently added byCasadeCox, Arina40, rhinus, brkwrn, private library, kauders, jwhenderson, kmb4
  1. 20
    The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran (mrstreme)
  2. 10
    The Colour by Rose Tremain (jayne_charles)
    jayne_charles: More Antipodean colonial pioneers
  3. 10
    Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville (Carole888)
    Carole888: This continues on from The Secret River, and is set later in time. Sarah Thornhill is the youngest daughter of William Thornhill. This is her story.
  4. 21
    Searching for the Secret River by Kate Grenville (relah)
    relah: In this small book, Kate Grenville explores her family history and how her research into it led to her novel, The Secret River.
  5. 00
    Remembering Babylon by David Malouf (wandering_star)
    wandering_star: Very similar theme.
  6. 00
    Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue (inbedwithbooks)
    inbedwithbooks: Deze boeken zijn zusters!
  7. 01
    Wanting by Richard Flanagan (merry10)
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English (114)  German (3)  Norwegian (1)  Dutch (1)  French (1)  All languages (120)
Showing 1-5 of 114 (next | show all)
On the last day of the previous century I was concerned as to what might happen when the new century began. There were warnings that computer systems might fail and "Y2K" plans had been underway for months to deal with this issue. As I started to work on that day, I turned on my computer and pulled up the website for Sydney, Australia, which booming city was already celebrating the new century with fireworks. All was well as I returned to my work in Chicago.

I note this episode because the Sydney in Kate Grenville's novel, The Secret River, is set at the beginning of the nineteenth century and it is a city of ramshackle buildings and tents, more like our old west than the metropolis it has since become. “It was a sad scrabbling place, this town of Sydney.” (p 75) This contrast highlights the changes that were started in large part by the prisoners, like William Thornhill and his family, who were exiled to Australia and formed the beginnings of that country.

Sent to Australia because he tried to steal from his boss in London, William Thornhill became one of the first settlers in the Australian wilderness. The novel describes the conflict between the earliest settlers of the country and the natives of Australia as they clashed for ownership of the land. Themes include ownership, racism, social class and hope.

Thornhill grew up poor in London but dreamed of a better future. He thought he was on his way to this better future when Mr. Middleton took him on as an apprentice as a waterman. He completed his apprenticeship successfully and married Sarah “Sal” Middleton, his childhood sweetheart. His father-in-law gave Thornhill his own boat as a wedding gift. Things were going well for the new couple until both Mr. and Mrs. Middleton got sick and died. Their care used up all of the money the two had in savings. Their property, including the boat Mr. Middleton had given Thornhill, had to be sold to pay their remaining debts. As a result Thornhill had to go back to working for others and was unable to make a living for his family. He was caught stealing in an attempt to feed his family and was sentenced to death by hanging.

Thornhill received a pardon for his crime and was allowed to go to Australia to serve his sentence. The place was described as something “out of a dream, a fierce landscape of chasms and glowering cliffs and a vast unpredictable sky.” After one year of service with his wife as an overseer, Thornhill earned his ticket of leave allowing him to work for whoever he wanted. He eventually partnered up with Thomas Blackwood an old friend from London who transported crops and supplies to and from the settlers along the Hawkesbury River. Thornhill fell in love with a piece of property he saw along the river during his first trip. He convinced Sal they could earn enough money to return to England if they claimed a plot of land and farmed it. Eventually, though, Thornhill “saw what he had never seen before: that there could be no future for the Thornhills back in London.” (p 175) With this came the sad realization that he could not share this feeling with his wife who continued to dream of their eventual return.

Once they were on the land in the wilderness, the Thornhills were regularly threatened by the natives who once had freely roamed the land. Although other settlers abused and even killed the natives, Thornhill just wanted to be left alone. Even though he wasn’t purposefully cruel to the natives, they came and stole most of his corn one day. After he and his workers ran them off, they returned that night and set fire to what was left. The author portrays the differences between the aborigines and the settlers in a way that reminded me of the contrast between the image of Rousseau's natural man and the Weberian concept of the Protestant work ethic. The two views of life did not mix well at all.

When he was asked to assist a group of men going to ambush a camp of natives Thornhill agreed to go along and help. He knew his life would never be the same after he stooped to the level where he would help kill other human beings. After the natives were cleared from the area Thornhill and his family became successful on their land in Australia. They became the gentry they’d always dreamed of being in London. Even with his prosperity, Thornhill still used his telescope to scan the woods looking for the natives that once called that land their home. ( )
  jwhenderson | Nov 16, 2020 |
Enjoyable read as a convicted London boatman is deported to Australia in early 19th century. The contrast between London and barren New South Wales is stark. The tension mounts between the settlers and the Aboriginal people. The novel provokes major questions and rights and wrongs and leaves the reader with considerable food for thought. ( )
  jon1lambert | Sep 17, 2020 |
Great historical fiction about a time period in Australia I always wondered about. Little preachy at times, but that is understandable in this context. ( )
  Cliff_F | Sep 11, 2020 |
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. ( )
  slojudy | Sep 8, 2020 |
A good easy read giving a live account of early settlement in Sydney and Hawkesbury area.
Her description of Will & Sal's slide into poverty, the desperation etc, is very real.
She is adept at getting you inside the mind of the lead character, Will, revealing his thoughts and feelings.
( )
  GeoffSC | Jul 25, 2020 |
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This novel is dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia:
past, present and future.
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The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year.
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In 1806 William Thornhill is transportd for life from the slums of London to New South Wales. His arrival with wife Sal and their children at first feels like a death sentence. But Thornhil discovers the colony can turn a person into a free man and eight years later he sails up the Hawkesbury and claims his own patch of ground. However, from the moment he sets foot on this land he has the feeling of being watched by the original inhabitants, the Darug people. There is tension between the Aboriginals and the new settlers and all are finding different ways to deal with it. As the situation spirals out of control Thornhill has to make the toughest decision of his life. Paul Blackwell's reading captures the hopes, dreams, conflict and struggle at the heart of this historical masterpiece.

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Grenville's Australian bestseller, which won the Orange Prize, 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
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Canongate Books

An edition of this book was published by Canongate Books.

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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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