Monday, November 2, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable: The Secret River

Well, it’s finally here: the first Living2Read Roundtable. Welcome!

Our hope is that those of us who have read the book can engage with each other in an exchange of thoughts and opinions about the book. If you are a member of a book group, you know that discussion of the author’s themes, intentions and characters in a novel can provide a broader context for analyzing current real-world issues. Respectful disagreement is a good thing – and welcome. As we experiment with a format for these Roundtables, it may have the feel of a work in progress – it is. But in time a solution will emerge. For this week, we will pose a question each day to start the discussion. Feel free to pose questions of your own about the book. To the point…

For this first Roundtable we have chosen The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It is the story of the early settlement of the area around Sydney, New South Wales (now known as Australia) by non-Aborigines as personified by William and Sal Thornhill. Perhaps the curriculum in other countries of the former British Commonwealth is more detailed than in the US but my own knowledge was only that this area was used as a penal colony for English convicts. I never thought to inquire what that might actually mean for the persons sent there. One test that I would make for any historical fiction is whether it inspires the reader to want to know more about the “facts”. By that measure I would judge this book an unqualified success. I would like to read more of the actual history of that time and place. If anyone can make a recommendation for further reading on that topic, please do so.

After Sagitty’s place is attacked and burned, Thornhill takes the dying Sagitty to the hospital in nearby Windsor. Instead of returning right away to Sal and the children, Thornhill goes to the local bar. With its repeated retellings, the story of the attack grows in its atrocities. Fear, prejudice and a desire for revenge drive the other men into a frenzy and Thornhill must decide whether to join in their murderous scheme. Could he have made a different choice? Do you think that he felt remorse for the choice that he did make? Was Sal somehow complicit in William’s choice by not challenging his version of what had occurred?

This is the first in a series of 4 blogs in this Roundtable. You can find the others on Nov. 3, Nov 4 and Nov. 5.


  1. When I reached the point where the men set out to avenge Sagitty, I had to put the book down, and it took me two days before I could bring myself to read on. I knew what was going to happen, but I wanted to stop it somehow. I thought Grenville did a great job of building the tension without exaggerating. We don't need look far to find examples of mob mentality even in the present day. Was Sal complicit? Good question. She was never simply a compliant passive partner to William, and yet she can't bring herself to ask the hard questions, though she senses that she may have pressured him. And of course they both pay a big price for their actions.

    I agree – this book exposed my ignorance of the history of the convict transportation to New South Wales. Now I'm curious – has anyone read “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes?

  2. Another good follow-up along these same lines might be "A River Town" by Thomas Keneally. Based on Keneally's grandfather's experience, it is the account of an Irish family trying to make a go of it in the frontier of New South Wales in the 19th century.

    But I think yours sounds better.