The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Published: The Text Publishing Company, Australia, 2005

The Secret River is a work of historical fiction set in the early colonial period in New South Wales.  It follows the story of a convict to Australia, William Thornhill and his quest to make a future for himself and his family working on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney after his emancipation.  The book is an exploration of the realities of white settlement of Australia and the responses and experiences of local aboriginal peoples.

Ramona – BI Senior Consultant’s review

I spend most of my weekends on the Hawkesbury River, and was fascinated to read Kate Grenville’s fictional account of the white settlement of this region, based loosely on the life of her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman of Wiseman’s Ferry.  The book illuminates the poverty under which people lived in England in the eighteenth century, and how easily death sentences were handed out for the slightest theft.  Many of these sentences were commuted to life in Australia (a fate that many English would gladly receive today!) and it becomes apparent how much the convict system was about England ridding itself of its unwanted lower class.  Once here, many convicts gained their freedom easily, and if they worked hard and resisted the lure of abundant rum, the currency of the early colony, they could become prosperous, as did William Thornhill, the book’s fictional character.

Thornhill’s initial attitude to the Aboriginal people who lived near “his” piece of the Hawkesbury River bank was one of fear and hostility.  Slowly he learned to observe and respect his neighbours, and realise their lifestyle offered many lessons on survival in this harsh land.  As his appreciation of their culture increased, he found himself swept up in a moral dilemma which ultimately lead to tragedy. Historically and interculturally, The Secret River is a great read.

Tamerlaine – BI Managing Director’s review

I found ‘The Secret River’ to be a confronting and challenging book which addresses some of the realities of early Australian history in an area of New South Wales where parts of my family were early settlers.  In Australia, it is still so easy to develop and maintain a one-sided perspective of Australian history, and fortunately books such as ‘The Secret River’ enable us to broaden our understanding of the complex history of our nation.  Growing up in Australia, I studied ‘convicts’ as a subject at school numerous times, yet never in the curriculum was the topic of aboriginal Australia broached.  It is so important to explore and understand different perspectives of our own past in order to better understand the present.    Another book which provides a fascinating other perspective of this era is ‘Dancing with Strangers’ by Inga Clendinnen.  Clendinnen’s exploration of first encounters in the Sydney basin is a good book to read alongside ‘The Secret River’.