Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Australia: "The Secret River" by Kate Grenville

Grenville's novel is a founding story for a continent with primarily one set of invaders from Europe, rather than eight (at least) in the U.S.*  In Australia as she tells it, English settlement had pretty much the same consequences that it did in the U.S.: The English took whatever they wanted and told the people who were there first, "be off!"

The story focuses on William Thornhill, former Thames boatman, and his family. It opens in London and we learn of his youth, apprenticeship, marriage, and eventual conviction for stealing wood from a shipment. He is sent, with his wife, to the penal colony in the antipodes. Grenville does a good job explaining how someone's sentence "for the rest of his natural life" could mean, in reality, four years of servitude, then liberty.

William is an unusual fellow. He is exceptionally strong and able to single-handedly manage a boat even through fierce tidal pull. Once in Australia, he is convinced he can grow food though he has no direct knowledge of how to do that. Later in the story, he won't ask his son, whom he realizes knows some Aboriginal language, to help communicate with people with whom they come into nearly daily contact. It is as if Grenville wrote anything needed to move the story along, regardless of whether it suited the character she created.

Thornhill does have moments of introspection and empathy. He is  apparently sensitive enough about other people that he can imagine what it might be like to live off the land, finding food all around. But for all that, he is still unable to imagine anything but his right to take land he likes. Never mind that plants that grow there are used as food by the first people. His friend Blackwood has told him that, but Thornhill persistently puts his corn crop just there. When the Aborigines come to their traditional area to gather food, instead of the tubers that are no longer there, they start to harvest "his" crop--an act that has consequences for them, him and others like him.

Image: Penleigh Boyd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Hawkesbury River

When this intelligent, insightful man moved his wife and children to HIS selected spot, there is no indication he has prepared the place, despite plying an active boatman's trade all around it for several years. Here is how Grenville describes their landing, after an arduous passage hugging the shore eastward from Sydney then through the tide-swept mouth of the Hawkesbury, and finally upstream within the estuary. First, he has timed things so that the tide has just started going out as they near his goal. My uncle is a professional ocean-going fisherman, and no one working around the tide would do that. Then:

"When Thornhill jumped out over the bow, the mud gripped his feet. He tried to take a step and it sucked them in deeper.With a huge effort he dragged one foot and looked for a place to set it down between the spiky mangrove roots. Lurched forward into even deeper mud, pulled his other leg up with a squelch, feeling the foot stretch against the ankle, and floundered towards the bank. He put his head down and butted blindly through a screen of bushes, bursting out at last onto dry land." (p. 132).

That description is a summary of the rest of the book: Thornhill persists, feels stresses, gets pulled deeper into muck, flounders, and eventually reaches "dry land." But it costs him dearly in terms of his relationship with his wife Sal, whom he loves; with his son, who leaves them; with Blackwood, who is wounded body and soul; and with the Aborigines whom he approached with a live-and-let -live attitude, at least until the corn fire.

William Thornhill's blind butting forward also costs his soul. At the last, only one of the first people is still around, a former leader whom Thornhill's family named Jack. Observing Jack,

"Thornhill felt a pang. No man had worked harder than he had done, and he had been rewarded for his labor. He had about him near a thousand pounds in cash, he had three hundred acres and a piece of paper to prove it was all his...But there was an emptiness as he watch Jack's hand caressing the dirt. This was something he did hot have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit. There was not part of the world that he would keep coming back to, the way Jack did, just to feel it under him."

We cannot undo the past. We can only move forward. My hope is that as we in this country move forward, and as those in others do, we all keep in mind that human rights matter, including culture, language, and more. It seems to be a lesson that people need to continue to hear. Too often I read of people who have impoverished, punished or even killed others deliberately to enrich themselves. Even today, I read that officials in Malawi are standing trial for defrauding their already desperately poor nation of up to $100 million. Why?  Why do people do things like that?

*  The eight I know about are Holland in New Amsterdam; Sweden along the Delaware River; Russia in the Pacific Northwest; Spain in the Southwest and California; Spain in Florida; France in the Midwest North; and the ones most often discussed--English Puritans in Massachusetts and English planters in Virginia and further south.

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