If you are looking for a book with get – away – from – it – all excitement and interest, The Secret River by Kate Grenville could be what you are after. Set in London and then in Sydney it is the story of a English convict longboatman and his wife and family on two rivers: the Thames and the Hawkesbury. It is a fresh interpretation of an old tale and compelling reading.
There was a time when a book about transportation would have concentrated on the plight of the convicts in both the UK and in Australia and at some point suggested that having being the victims of such cruelty and injustice themselves they couldn’t really be held responsible for taking land from the indigenous population.
Kate Grenville’s book is different. She shows us how a person can be both oppressed and oppressor. In a violent way in the case of the evil Smasher or more subtly when ex- convict Thornhill becomes a landowner and overseer of the two convicts working on his land.
But for me the key difference in Grenville’s book is the way she describes aboriginal land management. Only recently have there been studies published to explain how much the settlers of Australia misunderstood what aboriginal people were doing on their land. Grenville gives us the whole thesis in her description of how Thornhill seeing daisies on “his” land, digs them up to plant corn. Later the angry native owner brings him some of the plants and eats the tiny yams growing from their roots to show him they are an edible crop. Thornhill doesn’t get the message. He thinks the Aborigines are crazy when they fire ground near his hut but when he sees how quickly it recovers and how many kangaroos come to feed on the new growth, providing food for the Aboriginal families, he realises it is a kind of mirror agriculture; inviting animals in rather than keeping them out. The penny finally drops when he sees Smasher wantoning destroying live oysters to make lime to sell in Sydney because he has burnt all the shells from the Aboriginal spoil heaps.
This is the genius of the book and where it departs from all previous ones on the same theme because it doesn’t depend on seeing the Aboriginal people as doomed, naive and sad. The sadness in the book comes from the cruelty and greed both in the 18thc British class system and in the settler class who take the land from the native owners. Grenville’s aboriginal characters have resourcefulness, intelligence, dignity and a sense of humour. We are left with the feeling that all is by no means lost.