The Secret River

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The Secret River
First edition
AuthorKate Grenville
GenreHistorical fiction
PublisherText Publishing, Australia
Publication date
Media typehardback
823/.914 22
LC ClassPR9619.3.G73 S53 2005
Preceded byThe Idea of Perfection 
Followed bySearching for The Secret River 

The Secret River is a 2005 historical novel by Kate Grenville about an early 19th-century Englishman transported to Australia for theft. The story explores what might 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]:13 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.[2]:12 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.[3]

The novel is dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia.[4] Although sparking hostility from some historians such as the likes of an Australian academic, Mark McKenna, who published an article in which he criticized Kate Grenville, claiming that Grenville had referred to The Secret River as a "work of history,", however, he could not provide a source for the statement.[5] 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".[3]


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]and included in the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2019.[8]

A TV adaptation was made in 2015 by Ruby Entertainment with support from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Screen Australia; and was aired in June of that year by ABC TV as a two-part miniseries.[9]

Plot summary[edit]

The early life of William Thornhill is one of Dickensian poverty, depredation and criminality.[10] 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 commuted 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. Thornhill then gets sent to Sydney on a boat, by himself. After 9 months, Thornhill is finally able to reunite with his family in Australia. Sal becomes Thornhill's master, and Thornhill obtained a ticket of leave, one year later, after he demonstrated good behaviour. His son, Willie is already five years old, and Willie could not recognize his father, after being away from him for so long. Thornhill now also has another son, Richard, whom he called Dick. [11]

During his first night in this new land, Thornhill encounters an Aboriginal and struggles to communicate with him. The following weeks, Thornhill went to work as a lighterman for Mr. King. Thornhill then brought the alcohol, which he got from Mr. King, back home, to set up his own bar, named the "Pickled Herring." Scabby Bill was a regular customer, who would entertain the customers, by dancing for money. [12]

Three years later, and Thornhill quits his job and works for Thomas Blackwood, a former convict who is attempting to reconcile himself with the place and its people. Blackwood lived on the Hawkesbury River, with his boat, "the Queen". Thornhill also met Smasher Sullivan, a man whose fear of this alien world turns into brutal depravity towards it.

Thornhill soon realises that the Aboriginal people of Australia have a different concept of land ownership, as compared to the white settlers, and notices that many of the Aboriginals were stealing his corn. Thornhill realises that Blackwood has an Aboriginal wife, and son. Shocked, he goes on to tell his wife about it. He also gave the black people names, to tell them apart easily, and renamed some of them as "Whisker Harry", "Long Bob" and "Black Dick". Thornhill was also shocked to see his son, Dick playing with the Aboriginal people, and he beat up Dick. 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.[13]

Soon after, Saggity, a friend of Smasher Sullivan was killed after a raid on his farm by Aborigines, it is Saggity's death that leads to the battle with the Aborigines. Blackwood tries to stop the fighting, but gets whipped by Smasher. In the battle between the settlers and the Aborigines many casualties are sustained on both sides, Whisker Harry kills Sullivan, while he gets shot in the stomach, and long Jack gets shot in the head. [14] 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.[15] The clash is one between a group of people desperate for land and another for whom the concept of ownership is bewildering.[16]

A decade later, and William Thornhill becomes the wealthiest man in the area. He builds his own house, but he has always felt that something felt off. He also bought a new boat, named "Sarah" and renamed "Darkey's Creek" to "Thornhill's Point." Long Jack continued to stay, at Thornhill's Point, when all the other natives had fled. Thornhill's son, Dick, leaves him to live with Blackwood, and Thornhill's friendship with Blackwood also deteriorates, which leads Thornhill to have a sense of guilt of his actions. [17]

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.[18]

Use in curricula[edit]

The Secret River is a text used for the Victorian Certificate of Education Year 12 English course.[19] It is also used for the Western Australian ATAR course through Secondary school. The University of Sydney distributed 9,500 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.[20] As a "set text" it is included in the IGCSE (Grade 9 & 10) English Literature course for 2017-19.

Awards and nominations[edit]


  1. ^ Kate Grenville: Secret River, Secret Past Archived September 3, 2006, at the Wayback Machine Channel 9 Sunday Art Profile
  2. ^ a b Grenville, Kate (2006), Searching for The Secret River, Text, Melbourne, ISBN 978-1-921145-39-1
  3. ^ a b "The Secret River". One Hundred Objects Exhibition. State Library of NSW. Retrieved 2013-02-14.
  4. ^ Grenville (2005), The Secret River, Dedication page
  5. ^
  6. ^ McCallum, John (14 January 2013). "Deeply moving evocation of a tragic conflict in The Secret River". The Australian. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
  7. ^ Lloyd Bradford Syke (17 January 2013). "Review: The Secret River (Sydney Festival) | Sydney Theatre | Curtain Call". Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  8. ^ "The Secret River". Edinburgh International Festival. 2019-08-11. Retrieved 2019-08-12.
  9. ^ The Secret River at ABC TV, 2016. Retrieved 27 July 2016
  10. ^ Bedell, Geraldine. Bush Ballad Observer review at The Guardian, 22 January 2006. Retrieved 27 July 2016
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ [2]
  13. ^ Fantastic Fiction review
  14. ^ [3]
  15. ^ The Quarterly Conversation review Archived 2006-11-15 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ Poster, Jem. Cultures in collision The Guardian, book review 29 January 2006
  17. ^ [4]
  18. ^ Clarke, Stella (2005) "Searching for the Secret River" in The Australian, 7 October 2005]
  19. ^ VCAA Bulletin, February 2008
  20. ^ First-Year Book Club to facilitate community of big ideas at University of Sydney, 21 February 2011. Retrieved 27 July 2016
  21. ^ 2005 National Literary Awards Archived 2008-07-20 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ Booksellers Choice Awards 2006 Archived 2008-07-19 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ a b Austlit Newsletter August/September 2006

External links[edit]