The Secret River

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This article is about the novel written by Kate Grenville. For the play based on this book, see The Secret River (play). For the TV series based on this book, see The Secret River (TV series). For Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings children's book, see The Secret River (Rawlings book).
The Secret River
First edition
Author Kate Grenville
Country Australia
Language English
Genre Historical fiction
Publisher Text Publishing, Australia
Publication date
Media type hardback
Pages 334
ISBN 1-920885-75-7
OCLC 70061296
823/.914 22
LC Class PR9619.3.G73 S53 2005
Preceded by The Idea of Perfection
Followed by Searching for The Secret River

The Secret River, written by Kate Grenville in 2005, is a historical novel about an early 19th-century Englishman transported to Australia for theft. The story explores what may have happened when Europeans colonised land already inhabited by Aboriginal people.[1] The book has been compared to Thomas Keneally's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and to Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang for its style and historical theme.


The Secret River was inspired by Grenville's desire to understand the history of her ancestor Solomon Wiseman, who settled on the Hawkesbury River at the area now known as Wisemans Ferry.[2] Her inspiration to understand this came from her taking part in the 28 May 2000 Reconciliation Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge during which she realised that she didn't know much about the early interactions between the settlers and the Aboriginal people.[3] Initially intended to be a work of non-fiction about Wiseman, the book eventually became a fictional work based on her research into Wiseman but not specifically about Wiseman himself. The novel took five years and twenty drafts to complete.[4]

The novel is dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia.[5] Although sparking hostility from some historians it received a positive response from many Aboriginal people, Grenville has said "they recognise that the book is my act of acknowledgement, my way of saying: this is how I'm sorry".[4]

The Secret River has been adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell; the play was presented by the Sydney Theatre Company in January 2013.[6] [7]

Plot summary[edit]

After a childhood of poverty and petty crime in the slums of London, William Thornhill is sentenced to death for stealing wood, however, in 1806 his sentence is changed to transportation to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. With his wife Sal and children in tow, he arrives in a harsh land that feels at first like a death sentence. However, there is a way for the convicts to buy freedom and start afresh. Away from the infant township of Sydney, up the Hawkesbury River, Thornhill encounters men who have tried to do just that: Blackwood, who is attempting to reconcile himself with the place and its people, and Smasher Sullivan, whose fear of this alien world turns into brutal depravity towards it. As Thornhill and his family stake their claim on a patch of ground by the river, the battle lines between old and new inhabitants are drawn.[8]

The early life of William Thornhill is one of Dickensian poverty, depredation and criminality.[9] Though Thornhill is a loving husband and a good father, his interactions with indigenous inhabitants are villainous. Thornhill dreams of a life of dignity and entitlement, manifested in his desire to own land. After befriending Blackwood under his employ, Thornhill finds a patch of land he believes will meet his needs, but his past comes back to haunt him. His interactions with the Aboriginal people progress from fearful first encounters to (after careful observation) appreciation. The desire for him to own the land contrasts with his wife wanting to return to England.[10] The clash is one between a group of people desperate for land and another for whom the concept of ownership is bewildering.[11]

Searching for the Secret River[edit]

Grenville followed up The Secret River with a non-fiction book titled Searching for the Secret River in which she describes both the research she undertook into the history behind the book and her writing process. She chronicles how she changed from her original plan of writing a non-fiction book about her great-great-great-grandfather, Solomon Wiseman, to writing a fictional work.[12]

Use in curricula[edit]

The Secret River is a text used for the Victorian Certificate of Education Year 12 English course.[13] It is also used for the Western Australian TEE course through Secondary school. The University of Sydney distributed 7000 copies of The Secret River to enrolling first-year students in January 2011 as part of the inaugural 'First-Year Book Club', which aims to bring students together to discuss and debate big ideas around a common theme.[14]

External links[edit]

Awards and nominations[edit]