Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"The Secret River" by Kate Grenville

Oh, my, it's been nearly two weeks since my last review. I blame it partially on my inability to find something good to read because my new library system has ENORMOUS lengthy hold times for EVERY book I want to read. Almost makes me want to move back to Philadelphia, where apparently no one read since I got every book I requested within a week or two. Sigh. I actually got halfway through two other books (The Watch, which was utterly terrible, and LeGuin's Earthsea, which I just couldn't get in to) before finally finding something I could read with The Secret River.

The Secret River takes place during the colonization of New South Wales, Australia by British prisoners. Though this particular colonization story wasn't one I was familiar with, it's not too surprising that the basic trajectory of Western colonization is the same everywhere. Commandeer native land. Push out or kill natives. Make the new land into your homeland as near as possible.

Grenville's novel follows the Thornhill family. William and Sal are a poor but happy London couple until illness pushes them to desperation. When William is caught stealing wood, he avoids a hanging by agreeing to settle in Australia. Poor and landless in England, William is eager to have a place of his own in the new country, even if Sal only wants to return home. He finds what he thinks to be the perfect spot to claim as his "one hundred acres," regardless of the fact that black natives are inhabiting the area.

What makes the novel interesting is the way in which it's so easy to see decent, caring people turn cruel and selfish. William and Sal love each other and their family, but their own desires--particularly William's insistence on taking the land he wants--trump the rights of anyone else. There's not only racism to play, for as soon as William is freed as a prisoner, he looks down upon those who remain so.

Though the story wasn't particularly novel, and I would have preferred more immediacy in some of the plot lines (the book covers a rather large stretch of time, so sometimes it felt as though events were being summarized), it was still an engaging look at yet another shameful piece of history.

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