Australian writers seem to have strong ties to the histories of their own forebears. Thomas Keneally, Richard Flanagan and Roger McDonald are but a few authors who have successfully re-painted history on a fictional canvas. Kate Grenville - who in "Joan Makes History" tried to encapsulate all of [European] Australia's history through one imaginary woman - has narrowed her focus with this book. This account of William Thornhill, transplanted Thames River waterman, depicts the kind of person capable of founding a nation. With excellent insight into a man's ambitions, feelings and needs, Grenville chains the reader's interest from the opening pages. Release comes only at the final page, and while satisfying, leaves one seriously disturbed by the cost of "nation building".
Grenville's story isn't new. Thousands of people were "transported" to Australia after 1788, some escaping the gallows, while the rest relieved the intense pressure of British gaols. Thornhill was lucky in his wife Sal's appeal to escort William being successfully considered. There were few women in Port Jackson, and a wife brought stability. Grenville offers a fine touch of irony in William's being "assigned" to Sal as a "working convict". Again, as he had in London, William becomes a waterman - helping a boat owner ferry cargo up and down the Hawkesbury River. While conveying along the river, Thornhill spots a point of land amenable to homesteading.
Thornhill and Sal begin scrabbling a home in the bush, but immediately confront a major obstacle. The key issue in "founding" the nation of Australia is that it was already occupied. Although the British Privy Council would declare an entire continent "terra nullus" - unoccupied land - , the Aborigines, who had lived there for thousands of years, knew otherwise. Grenville grants Thornhill more humanity than most of his neighbours. Some of that is due to Thornhill's wife, Sal, but the former Londoner isn't a fixed mentality. He's adaptable and enterprising without avarice. Grenville's description of Thornhill's initial and later dealings with the Aborigines, and the many confrontations that occurred as other settlers moved in, forms the centrepiece of her narrative. Europeans were astonished at how easily the Aborigines moved in the forest. Silent, evasive, intimately knowledgeable about the land, the Aborigines were vulnerable only to bullets - and something else the British had available.
While Thornhill wants peaceful coexistence, circumstances force other conditions. Others, of course, are less tolerating and the history of British settlers slaughtering those non-existent Aborigines might have started at Thornhill's Point. The British population, both free and under sentence, is growing. Farming and pasturage put pressures on land unable to support two vastly different lifestyles. The skirmishing diminishes Sal's relationship with her husband. Fearful for their children and herself, she threatens to take them to a settlement for safety. As pressures mount, the interaction of husband and wife grows quietly intense. Grenville portrays the conflicting loyalties - husband and wife, Thornhill and his land, the couple and their neighbours, humanity offsetting avarice - with clarity and feeling. You are kept spellbound as the story takes you to the resolution of this web of emotion.
NOTE: "The Secret River" is the fictional tale of Kate Grenville's own transported London ancestor. Those wishing to understand how history influences a writer's choices are directed to Grenville's "Searching for The Secret River for the effort that went in to making this novel. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]