Recently I asked for book recommendations and committed to reading 20 books that were suggested for me by other bloggers and commenters. You can see the full list here. I started with The Secret River by Kate Grenville, recommended for me by Lucinda. It was the first of my library holds to arrive!
*unavoidable Spoiler Alert due to theme of book*
The Secret River was an ominous read. Not only did I fear for the characters, but for their country and its future. Throughout the whole book, I was filled with a sense of dread about what was to come. William lives in direst poverty in London near the turn of the 19th century. He rows clients and shipments of goods across the Thames. Good fortune arrives in an apprenticeship and a marriage to the business owner’s daughter. He is caught stealing timber and expects to die like other thieves, but his sentence is commuted to life in Australia. He is released into the care of his new wife and off they go. They realize they could make a living as small-time merchants in the burgeoning Sydney area, but instead, William becomes obsessed with owning and cultivating land.
Like all colonists, William and the other settlers refuse to acknowledge that the lots they claim are part of the ancestral homeland of the original Australians. The First People are dismissed as savages who don’t know how to build permanent shelter, cultivate crops, raise livestock, or “properly” engage in trade. At first they are treated as pests to be moved along, but when confrontations increase, William agrees that a lasting “solution” must be found.
As the story unfolds, we can’t help but sympathize with William and Sally and want them to prosper. We learn that other settlers treat the nearby inhabitants much worse, so William is not so bad, right? At first Sally, and later William, increasingly see the parallels between their lives and the locals’, but land-lust and dreams of wealth and power win out.
I found it chilling that the author chose to tell the whole story without judgment. It is based on research into her own family history, and other primary sources. Kate Grenville neither hails or condemns William’s actions. In effect, she simply says, “This is the way it was.” Readers can draw their own conclusions. Some will think, “To the victor the spoils.” Wars are won and lost and each side must accept the consequences. Others will think that William was simply a person of his times with the values of that era and therefore he can’t be judged by modern standards. Others like me will be shocked that the author’s only statement is apparently, “It happened and here we are now.” A reader concerned with social justice will realize the power in letting the actions stand in silence.
This book affected me greatly because Australia and Canada have the same colonial history and the same track record of exterminating First Nations people. Yet our Canadian guilt in having done so would not allow a book like this to be written here. A Canadian author would have written it from a First Nations point of view, or from the viewpoint of character who didn’t agree or participate in the genocide. The perspective that “This is how it was” wouldn’t be acceptable. I commend this book as history education and as a discussion starter among reasonable people. Thank you, Lucinda, for suggesting this thought-provoking and enraging book.
On to my next recommended read, Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell. What a contrast! This is a satire set in pre-WW2 London. We are immediately told that the narrator, Gordon, refuses to buy into capitalism. He has turned down job success in favour of a hand-to-mouth existence as a book store clerk and would-be poet. He continuously feels wretched due to having no money for food, cigarettes, treating his friends or going on dates. Yet he will do nothing to change this and become bourgeois. We know all this within a few pages. It was strange to read a book in which the premise and the “moral” are stated so soon and often, and they never change. Whenever you think things can’t get any worse, they do. I was reminded of Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat” and similarly gloomy Russian literature, which I love.
Thrift Deluxe suggested this book because she likes a “very English, miserable” read 🙂 It was actually a funny book and I was alternately amused and annoyed by Gordon Comstock. It raised some excellent points about to what extent we will stand for our principles. How far is too far? What if it has serious negative effects on others? If we cave in and compromise, are we lesser beings for it, or just “being realistic” or being human? Over all, I like books in which the key character is not necessarily likeable, admirable or trustworthy. Unless they are William Thornhill. Ha ha!
Aspidistra was also noteworthy because it really brought home the effects of grinding poverty on productivity, creativity and clear thinking. Gordon’s whole outlook on life changed every time he had a meal or a cigarette or a kind word from a publisher.
PS, This is an aspidistra, or “cast iron plant,” which Gordon Comstock finds in all the dreary places in which he lives and works, and it serves as a symbol of drab perseverance:
I am off to a great start. I could not have begun with any two books less alike, but I pored over both because they raised so many questions about how to live and how to get along in society.
If you have read either of these titles, I would love to hear what you thought of them (or what they made you think of).
I am now reading Riddley Walker, a sort of extended post-apocalyptic folk tale told in a made-up version of English as spoken by the characters. It is fascinating and challenging!
I hope you make some time to read in December!
It was interesting to hear your thoughts on The Secret River. I love books where I can picture the environments in which they take place. The train from Newcastle to Sydney goes through the Hawkesbury and so much of it remains untouched. From travelling that route as a child I was able to get a real image in my mind about where they were living.
The book didn’t disturb me as much as seeing it acted out on screen for the mini series. I am still disturbed by the character Smasher. It was very well played by Tim Minchin to still upset me so much, even two years after watching it.
I will leave you with something a bit timely and nicer from Mr Minchin:
Jamie, although I recommended the book, and was deeply moved by the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of the play, I couldn’t watch the mini-series. The violence was just too explicit for me. What I can take in words, I often can’t in visual images and sounds.
I drive across the Hawkesbury at Brooklyn every few weeks and I always think of this book. I think of the Aborigines disappearing into the bush and the red coats trying to stay in formation and returning torn, tired and defeated.
That Tim Minchin song is my favourite, though I do tear up.
Jamie, I had to turn the song off half-way through because it’s left me fully crying with homesickness! Love that song though. Just can’t watch it right now before Christmas so far from home. 😭
Hi Jamie, I would like to see the mini series. I don’t think it’s possible to film a story without creating a point of view, so it probably changed the impact a lot. I like reading books about places I’ve visited too. Of course there are places we fall in love with. When William Thornhill fell in love with the land and the river in NSW, he was literally willing to defend it to death. Although most of my ancestors lived a very hard-scrabble existence, there was one who exploited everyone and everything he could, so I certainly do not feel blameless in these kinds of sagas.
Thank you for the song! It captures our present era perfectly. I love it.
Thanks for both reviews! I am adding both books to my Kindle list. I will try to get them from the library first, but both seem worthy of purchase if not available or there’s a very long wait.
They were both sobering books, Laura, so think about the timing along with your family visiting and holiday plans!
Yes, it was powerful. As to a book like this not being published in Canada, even before the recent shift to the right and the anti-immigration we see with Trump and Brexit and the like across the western world, Australia has been a deeply racist country. And it is bedded in our origin with genocide and colonisation. That’s one of Grenville points. Unless we address our foundations, and acknowledge the first people, we can’t move forward.
Compare the difference between New Zealand and Australia. In NZ, Maori is integral to the united country’s identity.
And of course, not all Australian/British throughout the last 200 years have ignored the treatment of Aborigines – thus we have the divided Thornhill family with sons taking different sides.
As to writing from her family’s perspective, and not include the Aboriginal, there has been much debate about who has the right to speak for the Aborigines.
I will try to find the article where Grenville talked about not wanting to speak for the people whose words were never recorded.
The play took a different perspective. The actors playing the Aboriginal characters spoke in Darug throughout the whole play.
Believe it or not but a recent Prime Minister talked about the Black arm band view of Australian history. He wanted to deny all the massacres, the stolen generation, the marginalisation and dispossession. And there were many who agreed and still agree with him, including academics. They preferred the view of ongoing improvements and development. The term “black arm band” really sticks in my throat for its racism and for its dismissiveness of acknowledging the brutality against Aborigines as just maudlin weepiness.
Obviously as an Australian, well versed in Australian history, I am placed differently in reading this book. I have a totally different framework and can contextualise it.
I love hearing the perspective of someone outside that context. I know my fellow bookclubbers would love to hear you view. All of them are Aussie, except one who is Kiwi. Wish we could set up a viber or Skype chat about it!!!
I hope other readers of your blog who are not Aussies read this and comment.
Found it. Though you may have to cut and paste the URL.
Love the line in this article that the novel is not just about history, we are living with its consequences.
Hi Lucinda, The article was the ideal complement to the book. Almost necessary. I can see why the author did not want to speak for Aboriginal people, but the article summed it up aptly by saying she then left them without a voice at all. And the less you know about the Dharug, the less you can empathize, and the more the reader is likely to relate to the Thornhills, by default. I am very happy about the approach taken by the theatre company. Because, as they say, how could you have Aboriginal actors on the stage with no voice, no language, no point of view? I guess I did not think it was OK in a book, either. I feel certain that either the play or the mini series would have brought home the message with incredible impact that was dulled in the book.
I am sad to hear about the former Prime Minister’s views. Too many Canadians also believe that the First Nations people here benefited from being forced into “progressive” society and they should still leave their culture behind and assimilate.
I know you understand all these issues, L. Next I need to read at least one nonfiction book about the history of Australia – either from the Aboriginal perspective, or at least documenting all the significant events in the extermination of Aboriginal culture. (If you get a chance to read such a book about Canada, I highly recommend The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, which is a surprisingly easy read.)
Just looked up libraries Australia site. Two copies of the Inconvenient Indian, both at universities in other states. May have to buy it. But like you, I will have to read some general overview of Canadian history first.
I’m glad my book provoked you. I would hate it if I just picked a book that you thought was a nice read and then months later you forgot it. I think the feelings from The Secret River will stay with you and make you question other things about Australia (though, of course it wasn’t Australia then but a British empire outpost used as a prison.)
Oh yes, I am extremely glad I read it. I like to be challenged and it will provoke me to read and learn more! PS – I first started thinking how alike Canada and Australia are when I read Jill Ker Conway’s book Road from Coorain over 20 years ago!
I am so intrigued to read your comments on The Secret River. The colonial past in Canada and Australia has so many parallels that I was astounded to hear of the different contemporary approach to history in both countries. Lucinda has summed up the Australian approach very well. Even in educated, liberal-thinking circles, I would say that the whole approach of, “Well, it happened but here we are now” is still quite prevalent.
I am definitely going to read this book now. I have read first-hand accounts of graphic massacres in Australia that are barely known or acknowledged on the sites with any kind of marker. I have always been shocked that there is not an outcry over the horror that occurred. But there really is not. People do not want that horror in their memory.
It is difficult to accept to accept personally because I know my Gr-Gr-Grandmother was one of the first white children (and possibly *the* first) born in the district they lived in. There are many historical accounts that I’ve read about the process of displacement that followed.
The book describes how regular folks (our ancestors) justified their actions. After wiping out “the problem,” they became the grandparents and relatives we know and love. Chilling! Canada’s history is divided. There was a period during which fishers, trappers and traders relied heavily on First Nations people to help them function here. The English and the French fought over land for hundreds of years, and both allied with First Nations tribal groups to further their causes. Of course, the indigenous people were more used than partnered with. That ended with English dominance and peace time, when the land was colonized further and the aboriginal people were all but wiped out. When I was a kid, history lessons emphasized the importance of First Nations people in keeping the Europeans alive (!) but those same lessons always ended with wars being won and treaties being signed – the story of the First Nations people was dropped, as if there was no further story to tell (i.e. it happened and here we are today). It has probably only been the past 20 years that the history of Canada’s indigenous people (and the history of colonialism, actually using that word) has been consistently taught in all schools. So everyone is now aware of the multiple horrors like smallpox, starvation, residential schools and massacres. Locally, the first governor of Halifax issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq heads. We have streets and schools named after him. It is sickening. Canada still has a long, long way to go in acknowledging what happened to the First Nations and making amends.
Some strong parallels. The bounties, the disease, the using of indigenous peoples, then the forgetting. When I was at school, history of Aborigines was limited to pre-contact, as if they too stopped existing after British Invasion. Now, in NSW at least, the history of colonialism is dealt with explicitly in a number of subjects. It is mandatory in history. In English it is mandatory to study and read texts by Aboriginal people. The impact of dispossession, systematic abuse, use as unpaid labour, families torn apart, are now taught. But there is still backlash – see my earlier comment about a past PM – he wanted only the white MAN’S history – of exploration and development, of overseas wars (hanging to the belief we had none at home).
Thanks for the background info. I’m very interested in the topic and certainly don’t know as much as I should about Canadian history. As you say, there’s still a long way to go but sadly, it sounds like there is already much more acknowledgememt of the past in Canadian history courses than Australian ones.
Dar, I just wrote about “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance, so if you can squeeze it in, it would be well worth it. Keith
I read your review and it sounds like a book that might give me insight into a culture I don’t understand at all.
What contrasting books to start off with! Your reflections on and criticisms of The Secret River are fascinating to read (although I haven’t actually read the book) and the comments here from Australians who are better able to contextualise it have given me much food for thought. Also, responding to one of your replies above, I loved The Inconvenient Indian, which I bought in Canada last summer.
I am impressed that you’ve read The Inconvenient Indian! For such a weighty topic, the author used a lot of humour.
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