We just finished watching the PBS series, Colonial House, where a group of twenty-first century Americans and Britishers go back in time to the year 1628 and attempt to build a colonial settlement in rural Maine. One of the issues with which they had to grapple was their relationship to the Native Americans upon whose land they were building. I thought the issue was handled with way too much “sensitivity” and political correctness in Colonial House with the erstwhile settlers hanging their heads in shame and guilt over what their ancestors had done to the Native Americans and the native representatives obsessing over their lost heritage and the wrongs their ancestors suffered.
Then I read Kate Grenville’s Booker-prize nominated The Secret River. It’s not about Native Americans at all; it’s set in Australia, New South Wales. But it does show the ruthless subjugation of a native people from the point of view of the invaders, and yet I was brought to see the horror of what was done to the aboriginal people in Australia and, by analogy and implication, of what was done to the native peoples of America. The strength of this novel, however, is that the reader can see the tragedy of what happened when the British settled Australia and engaged in genocidal warfare against the native people, tragedy both for the aborigenes and for the English.
The Secret River is the story of William Thornhill who grows up in the late eighteenth century in the slums of London, has the great good fortune to become an apprentice and marry his master’s daughter, loses his livelihood because of medical bills and bad luck, becomes a thief, and is caught and transported with his family to Australia. That’s just the first part of the book, the lead-in to the real central purpose of the story which is to portray the “depredations and outrages” perpetrated upon and by the native aborgines and by and upon the English ex-convicts who took the aborgines’ land and made it their own. There’s plenty of violence in the book, not gratuituous, but rather uncomfortable. William and his wife, Sal, are fully drawn characters with completely believable motivations. They want security, a dependable living, a place for themselves and their family. The aboriginal people are less clearly portrayed, shown as they most likely were seen by the settlers, to be mysterious and unfathomable in their actions and motivations.
Since Ms. Grenville doesn’t choose to rewrite history, the fate of the aborigines in the book is clear from the beginning, and the fate of Thornhill and his wife is true to history, too. Thornhill gets what he wants, but “he could not understand why it did not feel like triumph.” A narrative picture like the one in this novel is worth a thousand pretend colonials feeling the pain of the native Americans for an hour or so on television. If we’re to avoid further genocidal episodes in our own time, we must understand not only what was done to the victims, but also why and how the perpetrators felt they had no choice but to commit genocide. Perhaps, then, such disasters can be avoided or stopped before they start.
The Secret River is a good, thought-provoking read. I don’t know if it will win the Man Booker Prize or not. Since I’ve not read any of the other nominated books on the short list, I can’t compare them. However, The Secret River at least deserves the recognition of having been nominated.