The Secret River: a review

by

Jenny Haines

The Secret River, by Kate Grenvill, Text Publishing, Melbourne 2005

Recently Kevin Rudd on behalf of the Australian Parliament and the people said sorry to the aboriginal people of Australia for the past appalling mistreatment, abuse and massacres. But after reading The Secret River I wonder if saying sorry once is enough or if we should keep saying it again every year for the next 220 years.

The Secret River is about oppression and poverty among the white people who were sent to the NSW colony in the late 1700s and early 1800s. I found it hard initially to settle into reading this book as I found reading about the harsh life in London at the end of the 1700s hard going.

The central character, Thornhill, is a London waterman who works the river trade in small boats. He grew up in grinding poverty, hungry and cold almost all of his childhood, to become a waterman who falls on hard times. He is tempted to steal against his better judgment and finds himself facing the noose. But his remarkably resourceful wife Sal advises him to plead for his life and he succeeds in having his sentence reduced to transportation to NSW.

When he gets to NSW, his wife becomes his custodian on behalf of the state for 12 months before he is given his ticket of leave. He takes up his old trade as a waterman and falls in love with a patch of bush on the Hawkesbury River. He sees this as his chance to grab a piece of property and set up a life for himself and his family away from the grime and the misery of London. His wife is not keen. She has heard all the stories of Aboriginal raids on settler’s huts, but she agrees to stay for five years on the promise that they will then go home to London.

Thornhill is delighted with his patch of property and he clears and tills it with pride. He plants corn and builds a hut. He earns money from his trading vessel, Hope, supplying farmers up and down the Hawkesbury and gradually builds a life for himself and his family. But they are not alone, and the land is not his for the taking.

At first there are only a few Aborigines who come to camp nearby. He tries to move them on, but they stay. His wife befriends some of the women, and they trade. Thornhill has a rather more civilised attitude than some of his contemporaries who like him are trying to eke out a subsistence along the Hawkesbury.

The author portrays vividly the range of attitudes to the Aboriginal people in the colony at the time, from the tolerant and understanding Blackwood, who secretly has an Aboriginal wife and child, to the psychopathic Smasher and Sagitty who perform atrocities that they barely talk about even in the river society.

But Smasher and Sagitty are allowed to be the opinion leaders as they spread their hysterical stories of black raids and alleged black atrocities. No wild story, no fevered telling of the story, is enough for Smasher and Sagitty, often driven on in their fanciful narration by bountiful cups of rough colonial alcohol. Never was the saying “evil flourishes when good men do nothing” more applicable. Their fevered stories whip up a whirlwind.

The tension between the white settlers and the Aboriginal inhabitants builds to a grisly climax. Thornhill allows himself to be led by fear and paranoia, Smasher and Sagitty’s fantasies, desperation to hang on to the land and his life as a possible propertied gentleman. He grows rich over a 10-year period. His wife stays in Australia, but pines for old London. He sits on the veranda of his grand home, haunted by the past, jumping at shadows among the trees.

This novel is an important work in these times of confused revisionism about Australia’s black history. Anyone influeneced by Keith Winschuttle’s writing should read this book and reflect on its account of the black versus white wars in the early colonial years.

It would make a good text book for secondary school literary and history reading lists. Peter Temple, reviewing this book in The Australian, writes: “The Secret River stands out as a work of sustained power and imagination, of poetry and insight. No truer piece of fiction has been written about the Australian past.”

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