This week, we not only head to Australia, but we also travel back in time, to the early 1800’s. A time when some UK criminals were transported to Australia to serve out their sentence, as an alternative to the death penalty. The 5th book in my Around The World Series is The Secret River by Kate Grenville.
The book is based loosely on the life of Kate’s great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman. He was, like William Thornhill, the main character in the book, a Thames lighterman, living amongst the poorest of London’s inhabitants. He was sentenced to be hanged for the mere crime of stealing a few planks of wood but at the last minute, was given a reprieve, and instead given the sentence of transportation to Australia. This back story mimics that of William Thornill and the series of events that lead him and his wife on an epic voyage to the other side of the world.
The most fascinating aspect of this story is the factual grounds on which the story of William Thornhill is built. The hut he built and lived in, the secret river itself and the numerous families and individuals that emerged from the dark, dirty depths, of the ships that had transported them for months across the seas, to a land completely alien to them, with very little prospect of life ever improving, was all real.
I have to say, this weeks book is certainly more in the ‘novel’ territory, and at times the subject matter is very heavy going and it really tears at the depths of the soul. It highlights the sad truth that humans often react in a particular way to something which is entirely new to us. Usually in a defensive and sometimes aggressive way. It is that instinct response to protect yourself and those you love that triggers this reaction and yet, as this book highlights, it is sometimes this reaction that leads to the problems. If we just accepted and embraced the new and unknown, the outcome may be completely different.
The book was written incredibly well and I am extremely impressed how the author did not shy away from the way the invaders (the prisoners sentenced to transportation) treated the aboriginal natives of these lands. I found it hard at times and rather frustrating the way William, his family, and the other characters reacted and treated the aboriginals but I had to accept that this is the true history, this is very sadly, how people reacted when put into this situation in the 1800’s.
I am so glad that these days we have the opportunity to travel, to see the world and to interact with other cultures, as it has hopefully opened the eyes of everyone to what a beautiful and diverse world we live in, and how the new and different should be embraced and not feared. I know there is still a long way to go before humans, hopefully, learn to react differently when outside of what they know, but when you compare how we are now to the way people reacted some 200 years ago, we really have come a long way and I would hope that such extreme reactions would not be mirrored in today’s society, if such a situation were to arise again.
The Secret River is a fantastic novel that evokes deep emotion and reflection on how you may respond or react to others. It does at times make you feel embarrassed and frustrated at the way people did used to react in this situation. It is based on a true story, thousands of ‘convicts’ were transported to the shores of Australia and they treated the land as if they owned it, with no regard to the fact it was someone else’s home first. It did happen, over and over, and the reactions would have been, sadly, as they were in the book and I genuinely think it took a lot of bravery on Kate’s part to write in such an honest and unedited way.
I highly recommend you take some time to fully immerse yourself in this book, should you wish to embark on the journey with William Thornhill, as it is not a book to read every now and again, as this will distract from the core values and lessons behind the book. As I said, travel has opened up a new acceptance in the human race and I hope that it continues to do so.
Next week we head to my favourite place on the planet, the Galapagos Islands.