A Blue Room Book Review – Sarah Thornhill – Kate Grenville


Whereas Henry Reynolds and James Boyce are in the process of putting the meat on the bones of the factual storyline for the Frontier Wars of this country, it is novelist Kate Grenville who attends to the fictional counterpart. The conflict’s earliest incarnation, the Hawkesbury/Nepean Wars, formed the background to her first book in her trilogy, ‘The Secret River’. ‘Sarah Thornhill’ is the third instalment. Presumably the ‘goings on’ referred to in this, the tome under review, was the Bathurst War. Grenville’s latest publication pales somewhat in comparison with the remarkable ‘The Secret River’, as well as being less satisfactory than ‘The Lieutenant’ – the second volume. How could it be otherwise? ‘The Secret River was quite ground-breaking as Grenville thrust the issue to the fore of something that we in Oz, for a hundred years, preferred to sweep under the carpet. There have been some failed attempts to turn her opus into a film, but more successful has been an adaptation for a stage production. Funding for a television mini-series was announced last year, to be made for the ABC. I’ll eagerly await that. ‘The Lieutenant’ was a thought-provoking embellishment of a verifiable relationship between a young British officer and a First Australian girl.

‘Sarah Thornhill’ adds another layer to the black versus white trajectory of the early days of European settlement; that being how those first born of mixed parentage fit into the narrative. To some degree these inter-racial offspring were the result of the initial tolerance, from both parties, that existed for a brief period after the arrival of the invaders. Overwhelmingly, though, it was caused by the forced sexual activity white men, deemed as right, expected from the ‘native’ women. This was our nation’s American Deep South travesty as reflected through ‘Roots’, ‘Mandingo’, ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ et al.

William, the ‘hero’ of ‘The Secret River’ has, by the time Sarah emerges from childhood, remarried to the loving but domineering Ma, finely tuned to the social mores of her day. Those tainted with the stain, including the senior Thornhill, as befits their past, could be somewhat more inclusive – to a point. William is haunted by his actions in the first of the printed threesome, set on the Hawkesbury, during the first genesis of the conflicts after white occupation. He is reasonably considerate of Jack Langland, a pioneer in the early cross-Tasman trade and the forging of links with the New Zealand tribes, despite his parentage – that is, until Sarah, blossoming into womanhood, decides he’s the one for her. Ma comes down like a ton of bricks, with Pa thinking it is best not to rock the boat where his wife is concerned. During this period the family suffers double tragedies. With Sarah forcibly convinced to realise that Jack is a non-starter, she turns her attention to what is ‘correct’, settling for second best. All through Grenville’s pages are mutterings of dark happenings beyond the ranges where the governmental ‘line in the sand’ is drawn. Beyond this whites are forbidden to penetrate. Naturally hat that notion was unable to be policed, as Boyce in ‘1835’ so ably draws our attention to. Settlers were hungry for land, the First Australians desperate to repel their inexorable advance, so our own version of the Indian Wars of the Old West soon ensue. As Tim Flannery recently inquired, why are not the Aboriginal resistance leaders held in as high esteem as their First American counterparts?

That ‘Sarah Thornhill’ does not measure up to its two predecessors in no way tarnishes Grenville as her usual skill is present in putting together a sustainable, easily devoured page-turner. It brings to life a once neglected period when a few isolated coastal communities began to spread their wings and contemplate excursion into the interior. The only major quibble I have is a truncated denouement, a seemingly cursory winding up which could, in turn, signal there is more to be told of the Thornhills. As a title ‘Sadie Daunt’ has a good ring to it Kate!!!!!!. I, with no doubt many others, would hope that the journey into our now distant, in white bread Aussie terms, past continues on.


Kate Grenville’s website = http://kategrenville.com/

Tim Flannery speaks out = http://www.smh.com.au/national/tim-flannery-in-call-to-honour-aborigines-killed-in-land-wars-20140117-310dg.html

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