Once freed, Thornhill falls in love with a piece of land on the Hawkesbury River. He has a visceral desire for ownership that can be known only to someone who has never been allowed to own anything, and has grown up in a culture where ownership of property confers dignity upon a man. It never crosses Thornhill’s mind that this sense of entitlement to a hundred acres of “free” land might be misplaced because it is already occupied.
“But what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his everlasting life?”
– Jesus in Matt. 16:26
“Be off! Be off!”
William Thornhill, British convict, just landed in Sydney after nine harrowing months of travel by sea, wakes up in the pitch of night to be confronted by an Australian aboriginal standing tall and full of dignity and uttering that warning: “Be off!”
After this brief introduction, The Secret River by Kate Grenville describes how Thornhill and his family arrived in Australia, starting with a searing account of bone-crushing poverty among the working class in early 19th century London, England. Grenville’s main character, Thornhill, is at first an illiterate waterman who barely ekes out a living for himself and his family ferrying people and stuff across the Thames River. Thornhill gets caught pilfering goods from the loads he is ferrying and is sentenced to death. However, his death sentence is commuted, and instead he, his wife Sal and their children are transported as convicts to Britain’s penal continent – Australia. Thornhill lands in Sydney in 1806 and after eight years of hard labour is pardoned and encouraged to become a settler in what is deemed to be an empty continent.
Once freed, Thornhill falls in love with a piece of land on the Hawkesbury River. He has a visceral desire for ownership that can be known only to someone who has never been allowed to own anything, and has grown up in a culture where ownership of property confers dignity upon a man. It never crosses Thornhill’s mind that this sense of entitlement to a hundred acres of “free” land might be misplaced because it is already occupied. Stealthy and inscrutable aboriginals seem to suddenly appear and then disappear in the bush. They shake the odd spear, accept the odd gift and live their strange lives of seeming leisure, coming and going as they please, with no desire for personal property to validate their peculiar “ownership” of the land.
The title has two meanings: a hidden river that the author’s ancestors lived on but also the “secret river of blood in Australian history” – its colonial past. Her inspiration for writing was a Reconciliation Walk in 2000.
We know where this story is headed. After all, many Canadians also settled in a country once peopled by aboriginal nomads eventually relegated to reservations. We know the history of colonialism and empire building in the East Indies, Africa and the Americas by the Dutch, the French, the British and the Spanish, to name the major players. We know from our connection by race and nationality to pioneers who came to “new” worlds, empty but for a handful of “savages,” who judged them to be morally and technologically inferior. These “savages,” however, found it difficult to accept the newcomers’ sense of Manifest Destiny and their assumed divine right to say about every square inch of territory, “Mine!”
William Thornhill is not an evil man. He loves his wife and children and is fundamentally honest. He is the quintessential hard-working immigrant. Many of us can hardly suppress an urge to root for him. He doesn’t want trouble; he would never deliberately inflict pain. He jokes edgily with the aboriginals; he gives them things; he does his best to get along with them and they respond whimsically or disdainfully like aristocrats of the earth. But when these aboriginals become a real threat to his piece of the “promised land,” Thornhill is faced with the choice of giving up on his dream of becoming a landlord, or of joining a mob who set out to wreak vengeance. He chooses to join the mob and we can hardly blame him. He has worked so hard and so honestly for his dream. William Thornhill becomes the rich man of his aspirations. But why does he spend endless hours scanning the horizon with his telescope? Perhaps he is hoping for some glimpse of those “others” whom he secretly knows belong so much more to this land than he will ever do.