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The Secret River by Kate Grenville.

April 22, 2012

The Secret River by Kate Grenville. Canongate U.S. (2007), Paperback, 352 pages.

A excellent, prize-winning novel about a waterman, arrested for theft in London, who creates a new life as landowner in the Australian bush, but with troubling consequences.

Growing up the slums of London, Will Thornhill falls in love and marries Sarah, the daughter of the man who has apprenticed him to become a waterman. Even with that skill, he and his wife barely survive and Will turns to theft. When he gets caught and is due to be hanged, the couple is sent to Australia. Sarah is the force that holds Will together and gets them started in the felons’ community in Sydney. Then Will discovers the hope of owning land and creating a future previously unimaginable to him. Sarah, and their growing brood of children, go along with him into the unsettled wilderness, but she is afraid of black natives and dreams only of return to England. Will, however, increasingly feels the pull of land ownership. Their neighbors and the natives of the region shape what happens to them.

Given all the praise for this novel, I was not surprised to be swept away with Grenville’s powers of description. Her portrayal of landscapes is particularly impressive. She also creates moving, even wrenching descriptions of her characters, especially of Will and Sarah and the separate dreams that edge them apart.

As an American, I have read lots of frontier stores. I was surprised by how different this Australian narrative was. The American pioneers were not city folk, unaccustomed to wilderness or land ownership. Fundamentally, the American west was settled by farming families, sons and daughters moving on from the land their parents had settled. The hardships and dangers might differ but the process was familiar. In contrast, Will and Sarah were moving into the unknown with little experience to guide them in the decisions that confrount them. In addition, in the American west native Americans would also have been a danger, but it is hard to imagine them settling as close to Anglo settlers as the ones in Grenville’s books chose to do.

Another highly recommended book, for anyone looking for an enjoyable read and one that moves them beyond the American frontier.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2012 4:36 pm

    I just drove over the Hawkesbury River yesterday …. It’s very close to where I spent my teens and is where Thornhill set up his farm. A beautiful place. I’m interested in your comment re American pioneers not being city people. I hadn’t really thought of that before. Some Aussies weren’t but a lot of them would have been, particularly the ex-convicts.

    Am on the road so away from my books and notes …

  2. August 31, 2012 9:00 am

    Yes. Our similarities hide some real differences.


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