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The Secret River [Paperback]

Kate Grenville
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 28 2006
In 1806, after a childhood of poverty and crime in the London slums, William Thornhill is sentenced to be transported to New South Wales for the rest of his life. But, as uninhabited as the island appears, Australia is full of native people who claim the land as their own.
--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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From Publishers Weekly

Grenville's Australian bestseller, which won the Orange Prize, is an eye-opening tale of the settlement of New South Wales by a population of exiled British criminals. Research into her own ancestry informs Grenville's work, the chronicle of fictional husband, father and petty thief William Thornhill and his path from poverty to prison, then freedom. Crime is a way of life for Thornhill growing up in the slums of London at the turn of the 19th century—until he's caught stealing lumber. Luckily for him, a life sentence in the penal colony of New South Wales saves him from the gallows. With his wife, Sal, and a growing flock of children, Thornhill journeys to the colony and a convict's life of servitude. Gradually working his way through the system, Thornhill becomes a free man with his own claim to the savage land. But as he transforms himself into a trader on the river, Thornhill realizes that the British are not the first to make New South Wales their home. A delicate coexistence with the native population dissolves into violence, and here Grenville earns her praise, presenting the settler–aboriginal conflict with equanimity and understanding. Grenville's story illuminates a lesser-known part of history—at least to American readers—with sharp prose and a vivid frontier family. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–William Thornhill, a boatman in pre-Victorian London, escapes the harsh circumstances of his lower-class, hard-scrabble life and ends up a prosperous, albeit somehow unsatisfied, settler in Australia. After being caught stealing, he is sentenced to death; the sentence is commuted to transportation to Australia with his pregnant wife. Readers are filled with a sense of foreboding that turns out to be well founded. Life is difficult, but through hard work and initiative the Thornhills slowly get ahead. During his sentence, William has made his living hauling goods on the Hawkesbury River and thirsting after a piece of virgin soil that he regularly passes. Once he gains his freedom, his family moves onto the land, raises another rude hut, and plants corn. The small band of Aborigines camping nearby seems mildly threatening: William cannot communicate with them; they lead leisurely hunter/gatherer lives that contrast with his farming labor; and they appear and disappear eerily. They are also masterful spearmen, and Thornhill cannot even shoot a gun accurately. Other settlers on the river want to eliminate the Aborigines. The culture clash becomes violent, with the protagonist unwillingly drawn in. The characters are sympathetically and colorfully depicted, and the experiencing of circumstances beyond any single person's control is beautifully shown.–Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Historical Fiction at if's Finest Feb. 15 2006
By Teddy
Format:Hardcover
The Secret River by Kate Grenville is historical fiction at it's finest. It starts off as a quiet pondering story of the toils in poverty-stricken 19th century England where most must resort to stealing to survive. Here Grenville focused on her central character, William Thornhill who got caught thieving to feed his family. He was sentenced to death, however that was commuted to life in New South Wales.
The story then turns to the survival of the Thornhill family in a new world, with a harsh hot climate and struggles with it's original inhabitants, the aboriginals.
Grenville writes in a quite meditative style until the Thornhills encounter the aboriginals. Then she breaks out as she shows the brutal price that must be paid by both the new inhabitants and aboriginals of New South Wales. The Secret River is a very satisfying read that will make you hungry to read more by Kate Grenville!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Opportunity and opportunism abound Feb. 28 2007
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This is a beautifully written novel about early white settlers in Australia and about the impact of such settlement on the indigenous inhabitants. It is also a novel about opportunities and opportunism.

In 1806, William Thornhill, convict, arrives in New South Wales transported for the term of his natural life.

In Kate Grenville's words: 'He had been condemned to death, and then to life.'

He is assigned as a convict labourer to his wife, Sal, and 8 years later is free to claim 100 acres along the Hawkesbury River.

William sees a future in New South Wales whereas Sal would like to return to London. This tension - between the known and the unknown - is one of the underlying themes of the novel. While personal to William and Sal, it also underwrites much of Australian colonial history.

When the Thornhills move to the Hawkesbury we see firsthand the impact of european settlement on the indigenous inhabitants. While the novel concentrates on the european perspective, it does not ignore the original inhabitants.

As The Secret River moves beyond the story of William Thornhill, convict, into the life of William Thornhill, emancipist, so New South Wales develops from a convict outpost to a european settlement in a foreign country.

This novel was inspired by Kate Grenville's research into her own family history.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A little point of land Feb. 1 2007
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Friederike Knabe TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
This review is dedicated to the late Stephen A. Haines, one of top reviewers on amazon, who kindled more interest in me for early Australian history than he ever knew. He also urged me to read THE SECRET RIVER. Unusual for him, he highlighted one short paragraph only in our copy. In a way, though, it sums up the aspiration and dilemma for the central character, William Thrornhill, and many of the early European settlers in Australia: "...It was a piercing hunger in his guts: to own it. To say MINE, in a way he had never been able to say MINE of anything at all" (p.106). Through exploring the life of this one person, Kate Grenville probes fundamental issues of social and cultural identity, ethnic conflict and personal morality. With a confident, yet surprisingly gentle and subtle voice, the author has presented us with an extraordinary novel, rich with historical detail, evocative in its description of the natural landscape, and stirring in its examination of the depth of human emotions, whether love or hate, tolerance or greed.

The novel, inspired and loosely based on the author's own ancestor, follows young William Thornhill from his family's desolately poor circumstances in London in the late seventeen eighties to Australia where he, as a deported felon, is given a second chance to build a better existence for himself and his beloved Sal, his childhood sweetheart, wife and centre of his emotional life.

William is a big, simple fellow, illiterate, a "waterman", used to ferrying people and goods from one side of the Thames to the other. Once arrived in Sydney in 1806, and released into the custody of his wife, he takes up his trade again while Sal manages the household, an increasing number of children as well as some lucrative business on the side.
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