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Old 10-13-2013, 01:55 PM   #16
Hamlet53
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Bookpossum and Marsi, can you recommend other Australian books with a similar theme?
I've just started on this and am enjoying it so far. I'm not Australian but really liked The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally, I think this would fit your similar theme category. The film adaption of the book is still one of my favorite films of all time.

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Old 10-13-2013, 02:10 PM   #17
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(...) The good thing is that at least there are people writing about the past who are prepared to face up to what was done and to acknowledge it. One of the historians doing this is Henry Reynolds
As we discussed in Things Fall Apart, it takes a lot of courage to go against the majority.(...) the title of the book refers to the Hawkesbury River of course, but also it is a quote from an anthropologist called W E H Stanner who referred to 'the secret river of blood' that was shed in the conflict between the settlers and the Aboriginals, and the silence about that shame in the way our history was taught to us. It's a powerful and chilling image.
And thanks for the images, Bookpossum. It makes this book even more alive to me.

I admire the manner in which this history is written. It makes me reflect on the way that many countries, mine included, still battle their shared past with the ex-colonies: no or little respect for the original (and colored) people, and of course little restitution or excuses. It takes a lot of courage for Australia to face the past as well as their present relations with the Aboriginal peoples.
Hard to imagine in these days that such a take over was possible and condoned by the English. That one of the oldest civilizations in the world (they came to Australia some 50,000 years ago) could be overrun by some gentry and a lot of convicted criminals.

Kate Grenville describes the conflicts of the settlers from a modern point of view. I don’t know wether one could really attribute these feelings of unease, of conflict, to the rather illiterate Thornhills, but she does a good job of making it believable.

My impressions of the parts of the book that stood out for me:
In this early 19th century colored people were viewed as less than human, so having sex with them would be an abomination, I think. Grenville describes the conflict within William Thornhill very well.
Spoiler:
P.247
'imagining the moment of telling Sal about what he had seen—even thinking the words in his own mind—filled him with shame. It was bad enough to carry the picture in his memory. Thinking the thought, saying the words, would make him the same as Smasher, as if Smasher’s mind had got into his when he saw the woman in the hut and felt that instant of temptation. He had done nothing to help her. Now the evil of it was part of him.
William Thornhill acknowledged little of the humanity of these dark skinned people, but he did know right from wrong. After the atrocities that he committed against the small community that lived nearby, he turned secretive against his own wife and in fact secretive against himself.
Spoiler:
P.286
'between the cushions of mangroves. When he came out into the open river, it felt as if a lid had been lifted. He could not get enough of the river air, stood in the bow taking lungfuls of it, clean and cool. He did not look back, to see the place where the birds circled over Darkey Creek.
He knew that he would not tell anyone what he had seen. Some of them would know already: Sagitty for one. He was the man who had talked of the green powder.
He knew he would never share with Sal the picture of this boy. That was another thing he was going to lock away in the closed room in his memory, where he could pretend it did not exist.
A believable character development for Sal Thornhill takes place when she sees the camp of the Aboriginals. In her heart she already knew they were human, but now the reality of it comes to her.
Spoiler:
P.296
'They was here, Sal said. Seeing the place had made it real to her in a way it had not been before. She turned to Thornhill. Like you and me was in London. Just the exact same way.
She shifted Mary from one hip to the other but the child kicked to be let down, and she bent to sit her on the ground, but absently, as if the child were nothing more than a parcel. You never told me, she whispered. You never said.
He flared up at the accusation not voiced. They got all the rest, he said. For their roaming gypsy ways. Look round you, Sal, they got all that.
They was here, she said again. Their grannies and their great grannies. All along. She turned to him at last and stared into his face very direct. Even got a broom to keep it clean, Will. Just like I got myself.
There was something in her voice that he had never heard before. Why ain’t they here then, he said flatly. If they reckon it’s their place. She looked away down the river, where the mangroves packed in: dense, green, secretive. Tilted her head to take[…]'
I am glad that the writer didn’t make this into a story with a happy ending, but continues and deepens on the conflict within William Thornhill.
Spoiler:
298.'He was no longer the person who thought that a little house in Swan Lane and a wherry of his own was all a man might desire. It seemed that he had become another man altogether. Eating the food of this country, drinking its water, breathing its air, had remade him, particle by particle. This sky, those cliffs, that river were no longer the means by which he might return to some other place. This was where he was: not just in body, but in soul as well.
A man’s heart was a deep pocket he might turn out and be amazed at what he found there.'

310.'How had his life funnelled down to this corner, in which he had so little choice? His life had funnelled down once before, in Newgate, into the dead-end of the condemned cell. But the thing that lay ahead of him there had been out of his hands. There was a kind of innocence in waiting for Mr Executioner.
The difference with this was that he was choosing it, of his own free will.
The noose would have ended his life, but what he was about to do would end it too. Whichever choice he made, his life would not go on as it had before. The William Thornhill who had woken up that morning would not be the same William Thornhill who went to bed tomorrow night.
He could not stop gnawing away at the thing.'
I enjoyed reading this book and will continue to reflect on it. Also I will try to read some of her other books. It seems that The secret river together with Sarah Thornhill and the Lieutenant loosely form the Colonial trilogy.

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Old 10-13-2013, 05:26 PM   #18
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I can see your point desertblues, about whether Thornhill would have had those feelings and indeed he swings between some sense of realising he was in someone else's place, for example when he found the carvings on the rock:

Quote:
155. This place was no more empty than a parlour in London, from which the master of the house had just stepped into the bedroom. He might not be seen, but he was there.
... to telling the women in their camp that they should go:

Quote:
194. Best stay away out of it, he said. Out of our place.
But of course, it was their place and he was the intruder. I think that even at the beginning of the colony, the settlers knew deep down that they were taking the land and the livelihood of the Aboriginals. I think the guilt of that explains the anger and even hatred which as Marsi said is still there. How dare 'they' make 'us' feel guilty.

For example, there has been for some time a wish to have formal acknowledgement of the Aboriginal people who died in the various frontier wars, trying to defend their land from those who were invading it. The suggestion has been made that there should be something about this at the National War Memorial in Canberra. The historian Henry Reynolds is a part of this movement.

So far, it has been refused as not being appropriate because the War Memorial is about conflicts overseas. But of course it is really because we are still not ready to acknowledge what was done by our forebears to Aboriginal Australians for daring to try to defend their land. I hope one day we have the maturity to face up to it properly and make that important symbolic gesture.

I can certainly recomment The Lieutenant, but I haven't yet read Sarah Thornhill. However, I am sure it would be very good also.

BelleZora, I shall have a think about other books. I'm assuming you are primarily interested in fiction at this stage? Eleanor Dark wrote a trilogy about the early settlement in New South Wales: The Timeless Land, Storm of Time and No Barrier.
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Old 10-14-2013, 02:39 PM   #19
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I wasn't that enthralled with the first forty pages, but once I got to the trial. Part way into the third section and I'm totally sucked in.
My reaction to the book as a whole and its powerful story was negatively influenced by the part set in London, which I thought was terrible. It was hackneyed in story, overwritten in style and had a modern sensibility overlaying what was supposed to be William's response to the world around him. Just as an example, the boy William, a product of the late 18th century, would not have registered people's smelly bodies nor tankards that were dirty. Grenville unfortunately seemed to think she had to clobber us over the head, again and again and yet again, with the grim poverty of London's lower classes, where I, at any rate, would have preferred to take that as a given, unless she had been able to make a better job of it.

Fortunately, her prose style was more suited to describing the glories of the Australian landscape than it was to evoking the infrastructure of London two centuries ago and the book vastly improved with the change of setting. I did not like her tic of using italics rather than quotes. I infer that it was to demonstrate the essential inarticulateness of the protagonist and his wife, but it drew attention to itself, again, as if she didn't trust her story enough to show itself. Ultimately, Grenville's not a good enough writer to take liberties with standard punctuation.

I wanted to get the negatives mostly out of the way, because the rest was riveting, both in setting and in the tale of those at the bottom who end up scrapping with each other, rather than with those in power who are the cause of their miseries. Thornhill was an excellent realization of the warring elements of oppressed and oppressor within one person and Blackwood as a man of empathy. The rest of the characters tended toward the single note, but the men were effective at illustrating the inherent evil in the whole resettlement scheme; I just wish Grenville had done a better job breathing life into noble wife Sal. It also makes me a little uncomfortable that the Aboriginal people were presented as uniformly content, living harmoniously with each other and the land. I know deep character analysis of any of the blacks would have been outside the scope and point of the book, but I find that tendency (which we see in the US, too, in some modern-day depictions of Indians) to be unintentionally racist.

Grenville triumphs in making Thornhill simultaneously sympathetic and unsympathetic and thus lays the case for all the settler nations. I think this is an important novel and I'm very glad to have read it. I give her full marks for concept and setting and imagery and her main character; her execution of the story didn't quite do them justice.
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Old 10-14-2013, 06:01 PM   #20
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Fair comment. I suppose I am more swept away by the book because I see what it has to say as so important, to Australians in particular.

For the depiction of the Aboriginals, we see and understand almost nothing about them because we are seeing them through the eyes of the settlers. I think Grenville based these observations on writings by Europeans at the time. While I agree that the "noble savage" concept is an idealisation which is also racist, I'm not sure how else she could have portrayed them.

The richness and complexity of their society was completely outside the understanding and knowledge of the settlers. Until the anthropologists took the trouble to learn their languages (of which there were a great many across the continent) and talk to them about their customs, values and beliefs, they were dismissed as ignorant savages who hadn't even managed to invent the wheel. And of course that is still the feeling among some Australians, even today.
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Old 10-14-2013, 07:37 PM   #21
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I did not like her tic of using italics rather than quotes. I infer that it was to demonstrate the essential inarticulateness of the protagonist and his wife, but it drew attention to itself, again, as if she didn't trust her story enough to show itself. Ultimately, Grenville's not a good enough writer to take liberties with standard punctuation.
School-assigned paper editions of The Secret River don't use italics in place of quotation marks. I wouldn't have enjoyed it nearly as much if they did! How odd, I wonder why there's a difference between editions.
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Old 10-15-2013, 01:09 AM   #22
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Maybe it was a criticism of the original edition that was changed for the later editions? My copy is a paperback, published in 2006, the year after first publication. It has the italics rather than quotation marks.

It didn't really bother me once I got used to it. I accepted it as part of the narration of what happened. There weren't extended conversations, just a phrase or a sentence here and there, a bit like including a quote from an original document within the body of an essay.
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Old 10-15-2013, 10:33 AM   #23
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40% through - just saying.
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Old 10-15-2013, 02:23 PM   #24
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At least it wasn't just me hating that era of England in general. I found the story just dull until the actual trial.

I did really enjoy the book. I think it would have been the perfect read for my challenge next year, something topical by the author of the country. I'll just have to find another from Bookpossum's list.
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Old 10-15-2013, 05:57 PM   #25
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40% through - just saying.
Good dog! (Sorry, I know you are really a wolf.)
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Old 10-15-2013, 06:01 PM   #26
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At least it wasn't just me hating that era of England in general. I found the story just dull until the actual trial.

I did really enjoy the book. I think it would have been the perfect read for my challenge next year, something topical by the author of the country. I'll just have to find another from Bookpossum's list.
If you want one about Aboriginal/European relations or lack of them, probably David Malouf's Remembering Babylon. It's on my TBR list so I can't recommend it from having read it, but he is a fine writer so I am sure it will be good.
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Old 10-17-2013, 11:06 AM   #27
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So I finished this and would once more thank Bookpossum for the selection. I'm glad I read it even if I found it depressing and disturbing. At least it was about the history of treatment of Australian aborigines, not Native Americans or African slaves in America.

I also had a few problems with it, many the same as previously mentioned by others. I found the italics instead of quotes annoying, especially since there seemed to be no reason for doing it other than to be different.

I also found the portion covering life in London over long, and other writers (e.g Dickens) have done a better job of covering the economic unfairness and class structure. It was important to have some of that though to explain how the various characters in the book came to be who they were. How William Thornhill could never escape his ideas of where he stood in the class structure, even in Australia, and why he was eager to seize any opportunity to view himself as superior to someone of yet lower class.

I also thought not covering the time spent on the transport ship to Australia at all was a major omission. Nearly a year out of William and Sally Thornhill’s life and for the first time [at least for William] under confinement as a convict would have helped shaped their characters forever I would think.

I understand the concern that can arise when a book touches on a subject like this that the author may stray into an idealized “noble savage” depiction of the indigenous people, but I don't think that happened here. Perhaps because there really was little in depth presentation of the aborigines, as Bookpossum has stated only the view through the Thornhill’s and other British immigrants eyes. The truth is that by the time any Europeans would have been interested in actually trying to understand the aboriginal culture that culture would have been so altered by contact and conflict with the British that it would not have been what existed before the arrival of the Europeans.

I took away from this an examination of the spectrum of morality present among the British who came to Australia and basically stole the country from the existing inhabitants, often enough willing to engage in a policy of extermination of the aborigines as part of that. Yes the author is presenting a modern point of view of it and probably the British of the time in question had fewer moral qualms about it all. When the aborigines would have been viewed at best as simple people inferior to any white and at worst not even human. Still I liked the presentation of the spectrum of views on it all that must have existed , and from the quotes cited by Bookpossum did exist. At one end Blackwood who recognizes the aborigines as people and the rightful owners of the land and who attempts to accommodate that; “Matter of give a little, take a little.” At the opposite end is someone like Smasher who has no doubts or qualms. Then there is William Thornhill who knows that the land he claims really belongs to the aborigines that had been living there, who knows that killing them is wrong, suppresses that knowledge when needed for his own self-interest, and later feels guilt over it. The question is which of the latter two is the higher morality? To do evil without any moral misgiving or to do evil knowing it is wrong and then feel guilty about it later?
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Old 10-17-2013, 07:14 PM   #28
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Great post, Hamlet and an interesting final question. Smasher is of course very much at one end of the spectrum and it's hard to feel any sympathy or concern about his end.

But I think the vast majority of people knew that their actions were wrong, or there would not have been such a conspiracy of silence, and euphemisms such as "dispersal" used when what was really happening was mass murder. (This is a term which appears in the newspapers of the time.)

Only rarely was something done about it. The most famous occasion was the Myall Creek Massacre in northern New South Wales, where the perpetrators were brought to trial, found guilty and some hanged for murder. The Governor of the time, George Gipps was of course vilified for insisting on this happening. Much as I dislike capital punishment, I admire him enormously for his stance when so many others looked away from what was being done.
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Old 10-17-2013, 11:26 PM   #29
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OK - I've finished.

Firstly, I really enjoyed the book. I too was frustrated by the italicised speech. I probably could agree that the London aspect wasn't as well told as the later sections of the book. I didn't notice quite as much as some because I thought at the time, that it was probably important to the rest of the story. In the end, I thought it was vital to get a better understanding of what happened later, and I appreciated its presence, even if I found it a bit less interesting at the time.

I loved the conflict in Thornhill over what was going on. I almost felt at times that I could see the author in his character for some reason. But this was mainly because I didn't expect to see any shred of compassion or guilt from people of that time. Bookpossum's quotes from historical pieces earlier in the thread seem to indicate that these kinds of attitudes did exist. I'm pleasantly surprised. When the media here decides to wield the whip of collective guilt, it usually does so in a much more uniform way.

Australia's heritage is a fascinating one and I think Grenville captured that for me to an extent. That these first pockets of civilisation were occupied mainly by convicts, those that had come from a completely harsh environment in London, where you had to fight for every inch, where you were ground down and always reminded of what you didn't have. And then to open up a whole new country and say - take what you want and by your hard work you will make it yours. How can such a people even begin to understand the indigenous people.

I felt this similarly from the other point of view. The indigenous people were used to having a fairly large territory which they occupied. There was no doubt a kind of ownership with areas divided among different tribes. However, it was less defined in many ways and collective in nature. From my read, I could sense that the aborigines were ill-equipped and unwilling to adjust and resorted themselves to brazen acts that helped to bring on their slaughter. Their own thefts, a statement of ownership in some way that was likely to bring harsh retaliation.

The gulf between the two seemed to play out (at least from the point of view of the colonist) in Thornhill's interactions with the tribe. You could sense that he had an intuitive understanding even though the author demonstrated the significant failure in communication. Some have quoted a few choice thoughts that gives evidence to that. But overall, he wasn't able to reconcile these feelings enough to find a way to bridge the gap. He had to own and it had to be exclusive. The tribe had to continue the way it was before with or without the colonists.

It all became like an inevitable event. You could see it approaching and you wanted, with your 21st century sensibilities, to fight that event. But it was already history and you could no more fight it than the people of that time could see or fight the situation with our understanding.

Great selection Bookpossum. I really enjoyed it. As a result of this book club read, I've lined up a bunch of books for next year to explore Australian writers. I'm not convinced that I would want to continue with this trilogy though as it almost seemed that the part of the story I valued most was resolved - in its way. Do I want to continue reading about the Thornhill dynasty? I'm not so sure.
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Old 10-18-2013, 12:45 AM   #30
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Glad you got so much out of it, Caleb. Yes, I have left Sarah Thornhill for the time being, though I expect I shall read it one day. It won't be a rerun of the period covered by The Secret River, but presumably covers the next period of settlement.

The Lieutenant is only part of the so-called trilogy because it is set in the very early days of the colony. The central character is based on Lieutenant Dawes who was an interesting man, though no doubt seen as a bit of an oddball at the time. He endeavoured to learn the local language and became friendly with a young Cadigal woman. He was fascinated by the people and the place, and wanted to stay on after his tour of duty ended. He was sent home though, and later got very involved in the abolition of slavery.
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