The Secret River: Readers' Notes

Along the veins of family story like a virus, the rumours about my great-great-great grandfather travelled for 200 years.  Violence, anger, love, ambition: the stories circled but never settled. 

I researched with fear of what I'd find, and came upon a bigger story than I'd expected: nothing less than the hidden, unspoken, half-erased history of the place where I belong.  I found not just one man, but a whole family ripped out of one world and catapulted into another, terrifying one. And I found the people into whose lives they exploded: the original, dark-skinned Australians, the ones on the front line of the colonial war. 

My great-great-great grandfather's story opened up the past of my own place for me.  It's been both a confronting and a liberating experience.  And it opened up his place for me, too: the London that he carried within him, even in the remoteness of the Asutralian bush, and the Thames that he never forgot, even on the wild banks of the Hawkesbury. 

Where the book started
I've always been sceptical when writers spoke about stories "taking them over", but I'm hereby prepared to eat my words. The Secret River took me over entirely for the five years of its writing - to the point where my children threatened to leave home if they heard the word "history" one more time.

The book started innocently enough, as a search into my family's past. My mother had told me stories about the first of our family to come to Australia - my great-great-great grandfather was a lighterman on the Thames, pinched a load of timber and was transported for the term of his natural life. Within 6 years of arriving here, he'd become a free man and "taken up land" on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. He went on to make buckets of money, built a fine stone house, and was buried - so the story goes - in top hat and tails, with a box of sovereigns at his feet. (Unfortunately for his great-great-great grand-daughter, the next generation proceeded to lose the lot.)

Once I started looking, it was surprisingly easy to find out quite a bit about his early life in London and his crime. Old Bailey trials were taken down in shorthand, and transcripts are online now. It was an astonishing feeling to hear my ancestor's very words as he tried to defend himself at his trial. From apprenticeship, baptismal and other records, I was able to reconstruct his London life and walk the very streets and wharves where he'd been.

The picture of his life in Australia was much sketchier. I could find plenty of information about his business wheelings and dealings, but not much else.

It was all interesting enough, but my imagination wasn't stirred by any of it - until the day of the Reconciliation Walk across the Harbour Bridge. I was there for the same reason I suppose most people were - we were sorry about what had happened in the past, and wanted to acknowledge it. The Walk was only a gesture, a piece of symbolism, but it was better than silence.

Near the end of the walk I met the eye of an Aboriginal woman watching the march, and we exchanged smiles. It was a warm moment.

But that moment opened a door I'd never known was there. As our eyes met, I thought, `Her great-great-great grandfather was here when mine was. They might even have met. ' That led to the next thought: `What kind of meeting would it have been? Would they have smiled at each other, the way we just did?"

I thought that wasn't very likely, and suddenly that bland phrase in the family story - "he took up land" - started to split open. He didn't just "take up" land, he actually "took" land, from people who'd been living on it for forty thousand years. What had happened when he did that?

It was all very well to know about my ancestor's business dealings, but what had gone on, exactly, up on that hundred acres on the Hawkesbury? In those days ( about 1810) the river was the very limit of settlement - the frontier. Perhaps he'd been granted the land, or perhaps he'd just selected it and worried about the paperwork later. He'd sailed up the river, he'd pushed the boat in among the mangroves, he'd struggled through them to dry land - and then what?

How had the local Aboriginal people taken the entry of this man and his family onto their traditional land? What had it been like, that very first day - what had happened when the Aboriginal people came out of the bush towards the Europeans? What had they done, and what did my great-great-great grandfather do? Had it been friendly (as of course I hoped) or distrustful, even violent?

I was afire to know - but my search was a frustrating one. There was no information - none that I could find, anyway - about his relationship with the Darug people around him: nothing, not even a passing reference.

This could mean that nothing happened: either that the Darug had gone from that part of the river by the time he "took up" land there, or that he found a way to co-exist with them.

Or it could mean that things happened - but things that it was in no-one's interest to record.

As I scoured the records, it became clear that I would never know. But as my research took me far beyond my family story, into the larger story of black/white relations in early Australia, it stopped mattering. The real man, my ancestor, faded from view and was replaced by another man. He was a fictional construction called William Thornhill, and telling his story became an obsession for the next few years.

History to Fiction
Like my ancestor, William Thornhill began his life beside the Thames, was sent here as a convict, and prospered. Beyond that any resemblance ends. Thornhill became a living, breathing, feeling creature for me in a way the figure in the family stories had never been. Thornhill was a man of strong feelings, quick to anger, a hard man, but one with a fierce love for his wife and children. I'd met men just like him.

Thornhill's wife stepped out of the shadows of the past and introduced herself, too: Sal, a woman whose life had been turned upside down when her husband had been sent to the end of the world and she had followed him. A spoiled only child, she had become a strong woman out of the necessity of her life. She was shrewd, passionate and honourable - eaten away with homesickness, but slowly coming to understand the new place.

These two people, along with five children and a crowd of minor characters, took up habitation within me as well as on the banks of the Hawkesbury. The story I wanted to tell was of people thrown into a situation unlike anything they'd had to face before, and for which nothing in their experience could have equipped them.

They were confronted by choices that must have seemed impossible. The Thornhills, like most of the other freed convicts, couldn't go back to their life of grinding poverty in London. Who in their right mind would choose that, when staying in Australia meant wealth and a place in the new society? But in staying here they were on land that belonged to other people - people who were willing to fight and kill for it. There was no getting away from that fact: the choice they had to make was how they dealt with it.

Reading letters, journals, newspapers, official documents and histories of the time, it was clear that settlers responded to that choice in very different ways. Many found ways to co-exist peaceably with the Aboriginal people. Others regarded them as not quite human, and shot them for sport. Between these extremes were most settlers: ordinary people like the Thornhills, wanting nothing more than to get on with making a life for themselves.

The pressures that might push a person towards one response or another was the heart of the story. Fear, compassion, government policy, peer pressure, miscommunication, self-interest - all these went into the mix. Would the Thornhills live as peaceable neighbours with the Darug, or would they join the settlers who went out with guns to "disperse" them.

I did an enormous amount of research. This book isn't history, but it's solidly based on history. Most of the events in the book "really happened" and much of the dialogue is what people really said or wrote.

Research, rather than family stories, provided the material for the second half of the book.

Wherever possible I based events in the book on recorded historical events, adapting and changing them as necessary. Thornhill's first meeting with the Aboriginal people on the Hawkesbury is based on a similar incident involving the first Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip. The incident in which Captain McCallum fails to ambush a group of Aboriginal people is based on many accounts of similar failures by the military. The Proclamation which gives settlers permission to shoot aboriginal people is taken verbatim from Governor Macquarie's Proclamation of 1816. The massacre scene is based on eyewitness accounts of the Waterloo Creek killings in 1838.

Some characters are also loosely based on historical figures, and some of their dialogue is taken from their own mouths. Smasher, for example, quotes the early settler William Cox when he suggests the Aboriginal people should be shot and used for manuring the ground. Blackwood is based on accounts of particular settlers who protected Aboriginal people and fought for their rights. Mrs Herring takes some of her qualities from Margaret Catchpole, an indomitable early Hawkesbury settler.

It was important to me that the incidents and characters were solidly based on history, but as a novelist I drew on the historical sources loosely, as a starting-point for the work of the imagination. The final events and characters meld many historical references together - they're fiction, but they're based on fact.

Imagining the Past
As a novelist, my challenge was to put flesh on the bones of history and make all that research come to life. I had to feel what it was like to be at the bottom of the English class system with no hope of ever rising. I had to imagine what it was like to be illiterate. I needed to know what the texture of daily life was like - what did those first settlers eat, for example? Did they have footwear or were they barefoot in the bush? What was a bark hut actually like to live in? What exactly is a "slush lamp", and what kind of light does it give? What happens, exactly, when a spear or a musket ball enters a human body?

Above all, I wanted to know the individuals, to get into their heads and their hearts. In all their variety of personalities, they must have been like people I knew and like myself - not heroes and not devils, but just human beings, stumbling from one small decision to the next and in so doing, without really planning it, creating the shape of their lives. As I wrote, I kept coming back to the central question: what would I have done in their place?

The past as a way in to the present
It's not always comfortable to ask that question, because none of us can be sure of the answer. There'll be people who won't like what I've done in this book. There'll be those who prefer to hang onto their preconceptions about "pioneer days" and who feel in any case that it's all so long ago, what's the point of dredging it all up again?

My feeling is that there's a sense of unfinished business in our history - it's probably why the "history wars" go on making headlines, why family research is booming, and perhaps even why 17,000 people went to Gallipolli recently to think about something that happened a lifetime ago. There's no going back and replaying the hand the history dealt us, but we can go back and tease the story out so we can feel what it was like to live through it. Understanding is the first step - without that there's no way to go forward.

In writing this fiction, I didn't have a message or an axe to grind. I wasn't interested in judging those people, only in getting into their lives. I hoped to create an experience for a reader in which they could understand what that moment of our past was really like. The great power of fiction is that it's not an argument: it's a world. Inhabit it for a while - say 300 pages worth - and you're likely to come out a little changed. 

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