The Secret River


The Secret River is set in the early nineteenth century, on what was then the frontier between British colonists and Australia’s indigenous people: the Hawkesbury River, fifty miles from Sydney. 

Many of its details are based on my own family history.  Like the character William Thornhill, my great-great-great grandfather Solomon Wiseman was an illiterate Thames bargeman who was transported to Australia in 1806 for stealing a load of timber.  Within a few years he was pardoned, and “took up land”, as the euphemism goes, on the banks of the Hawkesbury.  The land made him rich beyond anything he could have dreamed of in London.  There was no going back.

I’ll probably never know how he dealt with the fact that he had taken – stolen – land that belonged to the indigenous people of the area.  The documentary record is completey silent on that matter.  But the work of historians makes it clear that there was violence between black and white on the Hawkesbury, even if Solomon Wiseman wasn’t part of it, and that was the story I had to try to tell.  The story of one set of people taking over the territory of others is a universsal one, and it can’t be evaded. 

The Secret River caused controversy when it first appeared, and become a pawn in the “history wars” that continues to this day.  How should a nation tell its foundation story, when that story involves the dispossession of other people? Is there a path between the “black armband” and the “white blindfold” versions of a history like ours?

From its tumultuous beginnings, The Secret River has enjoyed a long life.  It won many prizes, has been translated into around twenty languages, has been adapted as an acclaimed TV mini-series, and had sell-out runs ( including at the Edinburgh and Adelaide Festivals) as a stage play adapted by Andrew Bovell. 


The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Now it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales. There was hardly a door, barely a wall: only a flap of bark, a screen of sticks and mud. There was no need of lock, of door, of wall: this was a prison whose bars were ten thousand miles of water.

Thornhill’s wife was sleeping sweet and peaceful against him, her hand still entwined in his. The child and the baby were asleep too, curled up together. Only Thornhill could not bring himself to close his eyes on this foreign darkness. Through the doorway of the hut he could feel the night, huge and damp, flowing in and bringing with it the sounds of its own life: tickings and creakings, small private rustlings, and beyond that the soughing of the forest, mile after mile.

When he got up and stepped out through the doorway there was no cry, no guard: only the huge living night. The air moved around him, full of rich dank smells. Trees stood tall over him. A breeze shivered through the leaves, then died, and left only the vast fact of the forest.

He was nothing more than a flea on the side of some enormous quiet creature.

Down the hill the settlement was hidden by the darkness. A dog barked in a tired way and stopped. From the bay where the Alexander was anchored there was a sense of restless water shifting in its bed of land and swelling up against the shore.

Above him in the sky was a thin moon and a scatter of stars as meaningless as spilt rice. There was no Pole Star, a friend to guide him on the Thames, no Bear that he had known all his life: only this foreign blaze, unreadable, indifferent.

All the many months in the Alexander, lying in the hammock which was all the territory he could claim in the world, listening to the sea slap against the side of the ship and trying to hear the voices of his own wife, his own children, in the noise from the women’s quarters, he had been comforted by telling over the bends of his own Thames. The Isle of Dogs, the deep eddying pool of Rotherhithe, the sudden twist of the sky as the river swung around the corner to Lambeth: they were all as intimate to him as breathing. Daniel Ellison grunted in his hammock beside him, fighting even in his sleep, the women were silent beyond their bulkhead, and still in the eye of his mind he rounded bend after bend of that river .

Now, standing in the great sighing lung of this other place and feeling the dirt chill under his feet, he knew that life was gone. He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him. This was a place, like death, from which men did not return. It was a sharp stab like a splinter under a nail: the pain of loss. He would die here under these alien stars, his bones rot in this cold earth.

He had not cried, not for thirty years, not since he was a hungry child too young to know that crying did not fill your belly. But now his throat was thickening, a press of despair behind his eyes forcing warm tears down his cheeks.

There were things worse than dying: life had taught him that. Being here in New South Wales might be one of them.

It seemed at first to be the tears welling, the way the darkness moved in front of him. It took a moment to understand that the stirring was a human, as black as the air itself. His skin swallowed the light and made him not quite real, something only imagined. His eyes were set so deeply into the skull that they were invisible, each in its cave of bone. The rock of his face shaped itself around the big mouth, the imposing nose, the folds of his cheeks. Without surprise, aas though he were dreaming, Thornhill saw the scars drawn on the man’s chest, each a neat line raised and twisted, living against the skin.

He took a step towards Thornhill so that the parched starlight from the sky fell on his shoulders. He wore his nakedness like a cloak. Upright in his hand, the spear was part of him, an extension of his arm.

Clothed as he was, Thornhill felt naked as a maggot. The spear was tall and serious. To have evaded death at the end of the rope, only to go like this, his skin punctured and blood spilled beneath these chilly stars! And behind him, hardly hidden by that flap of bark, were those soft parcels of flesh: his wife and children.

Anger, that old familiar friend, came to his side. Damn your eyes be off, he shouted. Go to the devil! After so long as a felon, hunched under the threat of the lash, he felt himself expaning back into his full size. His voice was rough, full of power, his anger a solid warmth inside him.

He took a threatening step forward. Could make out chips of sharp stone in the end of the spear. It would not go through a man neat as a needle. It would rip its way in. Pulling it out would rip all over again. The thought fanned his rage. Be off! Empty though it was, he raised his hand against the man.

The mouth of the black man began to move itself around sounds. As he spoke he gestured with the spear so it came and went in the darkness. They were close enough to touch.

In the fluid rush of speech Thornhill suddenly heard words. Be off, the man was shouting. Be off! It was his own tone exactly.

This was a kind of madness, as if a dog were to bark in English.

Be off, be off! He was close enough now that he could see the man’s eyes catching the light under their heavy brows, and the straight angry line of his mouth. His own words had all dried up, but he stood his ground.

He had died once, in a manner of speaking. He could die again. He had been stripped of everything already: he had only the dirt under his bare feet, his small grip on this unknown place. He had nothing but that, and those helpless sleeping humans in the hut behind him. He was not about to surrender them to any naked black man.

In the silence between them the breeze rattled through the leaves. He glanced back at where his wife and infants lay, and when he looked again the man was gone. The darkness in front of him whispered and shifted, but there was only the forest. It could hide a hundred black men with spears, a thousand, a whole continent full of men with spears and that grim line to their mouths.

He went quickly into the hut, stumbling against the doorway so that clods of daubed mud fell away from the wall. The hut offered no safety, just the idea of it, but he dragged the flap of bark into place. He stretched himself out on the dirt alongside his family, forcing himself to lie still. But every muscle was tensed, anticipating the shock in his neck or his belly, his hand going to the place, the cold moment of finding that unforgiving thing in his flesh. 

Prizes awarded to The Secret River:

1. The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – Australasia/South Pacific Region

2. The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – Overall Winner

3. The NSW Premier’s Prize for Fiction

4. The NSW Premier’s Community Relations Award

5. The Australian Booksellers’ Award

6. The Australian Book Industry Award for Literary Fiction

7. The Australian Book Industry Prize for Book of the Year

8. The Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Prize for Fiction

It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, the Kibble Award, the Victorian Premier’s Award, Age Book of the Year, and nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Local Reviews:

“One of the most entertaining, accomplished, engaging novels written in this country… it will live on as a classic.”

“Grenville does it with such inventive energy, descriptive verve and genuine love of revitalising history that you’ll bite the hand that tries to haul you away from this book… The Secret River is fabulous historical fiction.”
(The Weekend Australian)

“A book everyone should read. It is evocative, gracefully written, terrible and confronting. And it has resonance for every Australian.”
(Sunday Mail)

“Grenville has a reputation for elegant prose that cuts to the very heart of her subject matter with breathtaking precision. With The Secret River she has done it again in spades.”
(Vogue Australia)

Grenville’s new book is beautifully imagined and executed… subtle and satisfying.”

“Such is the power of Grenville’s imagination that everything seems newly minted.”

“Settings are vividly evoked… minor characters are striking, memorable figures. But the distinction of this in some ways courageous novel resides in its central characters…Grenville has exercised the writer’s privilege of allowing the reader to penetrate the minds and souls of those we are inclined to condemn.”
(Sydney Morning Herald)

The Secret River stands out as a work of sustained power and imagination, of poetry and insight. No truer piece of fiction has been written about the Australian past.”
(The Australian)

“This wonderful story about ownership and identity is filled with images that transports you immediately to its heart.”
(Marie Claire)

“With The Secret River Kate Grenville has surpassed herself. The relevance of this tale of early transportation and contact with the Aboriginal people spreads far beyond Australian borders…a profoundly important book.”
(Listener – New Zealand)

International Reviews:
“In spare, unpretentious prose, Grenville charts the brutal truth that violence breeds violence. Splendidly paced, passionate and disturbing.”
(Sally Vickers, The Times)

“This is a moving account of the brutal collision of two cultures; but it is the vivid evocation of the harshly beautiful landscape that is the novel’s outstanding achievement.”
(Simon Humphreys, Mail on Sunday)

“A vivid and moving portrayal of poverty, struggle and the search for peace.”

“Grenville shows again the excellent form that won her the Orange Prize.”
(Sunday Times)

“An outstanding study of cultures in collision… a chilling, meticulous account of the sorrows and evils of colonialism…Kate Grenville is a sophisticated writer.”
(Jem Poster, Guardian)

“This is not your standard historical novel. There is real tenderness and sympathy.”
(The Times)

“She gives a fiercely intelligent portrayal of a clash of cultures…in consequence the novel works on two levels: the historical and particular, and the philosophical, bringing into question the extent to which it is possible to own anything, even one’s life.”
(Times Literary Supplement)

“A richly layered tale of a fierce and unforgiving backdrop, the quest for its ownership, and the brutal price paid by those who would colonise it it vividly described… this is a dramatic, beautiful work – on a par with Patrick White or Sally Morgan – that will ensure Grenville’s place on the international market.”
(Scotland on Sunday)

“Grenville writes prose which is immediately engaging. There are overtones of Macbeth in this study in how a man, not inherently evil, can be corrupted by circumstances. Grenville’s skill is to turn what could have been too obviously a representative moral fable into a rich novel of character.”
(Sunday Telegraph)

“A few sentences of Grenville’s makes one realise that much of the writing one encounters in a novel these days is thin and perfunctory. Reading The Secret River may put you off anything less accomplished for a while.”
(Daily Express)

“The Secret River is a sad book, beautifully written.”

A revelation… an engrossing account of early Australian history… she has written honestly and credibly about the complexity of the relationship between Aborigine and white settler.”
(Sunday Tribune, Dublin)

“Grenville controls terrifying material without resorting to polemic. Her sense of humanity elevates her work beyond simply rage or sentimentality. This is why she is a major writer and, with Peter Carey, a worth heir of Patrick White.”
(Irish Times)

“Kate Grenville, an Australian writer of impeccable talents, conjures up this new South Wales as few writers could – with sentences so astonishingly muscular and right that readers will dream the landscape at night… the Secret River is a masterwork, a book that transcends its historical fiction and becomes something deeply contemporary and pressing. Nothing save for pure genius can explain the quality of this book. Against every measure by which a book might be judged, this one transcends. It deserves every prize it already has received, and every prize yet to come.”
(Chicago Tribune)

“No fingers are pointed: we understand only too well what brought these people together and then thrust them apart, and the story’s resolution achieves genuine tragic grandeur. Grenville’s best, and a giant leap forward.”
(Kirkus Reviews (starred))

“For the Australian pioneer of Kate Grenville’s hugely filmic The Secret River, a land of opportunity becomes a moral wilderness worthy of Conrad.”

“Grenville earns her praise, presenting the settler-aboriginal conflict with equanimity and understanding, sharp prose and a vivid frontier family.”
(Publishers’ Weekly)

“There are books which when you have turned the final page leave you unable to speak or move from the place you have been reading; this is just such a book… a riveting story of forging a new life on a breathtakingly described Australian frontier, the conflict between the new arrival and the aboriginal population, and the price of success.”
(The Boston Globe)

“This novel is a perceptive and masterful portrayal of the lives of some of Australian’s earliest European settlers… the clash between the old and new worlds is elegantly conveyed, as is that between the native Australians and the settlers.”
(Independent Booksellers Book Sense Picks)

“Grenville’s psychological acuity, and the sheer gorgeousness of her descriptions of the territory being fought over, pulls us ever deeper into a time when one community’s opportunity spelled another’s doom.”
(The New Yorker)

“The stage is set for a confrontation that seems inevitable but never predestined. Grenville is too sly a writer for that. Grenville’s admirably plain novel is equally subtle in its portrait of what a man is and what – to his own horror – he can become.”
(The Boston Globe)

“Grenville is a fine, poetic writer who takes a lot of risks… What’s remarkable about the novel is not how it recreates time and place, but the way Grenville manages to make us understand Thornhill’s state of mind… the story hones towards violence and retribution, retaliation and escalation like a thriller.”

“The most remarkable quality of Kate Grenville’s new novel is the way it conveys the enormous tragedy of Australia’s founding through the moral compromises of a single ordinary man. Grenville’s powerful telling of this story is so moving, so exciting, that you’re barely aware of how heavy and profound its meaning is until you reach the end in a moment of stunned sadness.”
(The Washington Post)

“Americans will find Grenville’s eloquent pioneer story at once foreign and stunningly familiar.”
(Entertainment Weekly)

“Plotting and characterisation are so skilful that the book’s tragic climax seems inevitable. Grenville writes lyrically, especially in her description of the Australian landscape, while her gift for the telling phrase – one that conveys a paragraph of description in a few words – enlivens an essentially dark narrative.”

“I consumed Kate Grenville’s The Secret River in one sitting… it is so darn good, a powerful novel told in the unique language of Australians. Want a satisfying, memorable read, one that you can recommend to family and friends? The Secret River will not let you down.”
(Sun Times Review)

Grenville masterfully creates distinct and entirely believable worlds. The strength of her writing lies in her ability to create setting… her depiction of the aboriginals is fascinating and insightful.”
(Globe Review)

“An astounding novel.”
(Powell’s Books)

A Close Read
The riverbank seemed to undergo a change of air. The old man’s face closed down into its creases of shadows. His hand reached around and got the curved wooden club from the string round his waist. The younger man took a step forward, the spear up in his hand, poised on the balls of his feet, his face grim. From the trees Thornhill heard the scrape of wood on wood and knew it to be the sound of spears being fitted by invisible hands along spear-throwers. He heard Sal give a squashed cry as she heard it too, and a wail from Johnny cut short with her hand over his mouth.”
(From The Secret River)

This paragraph , with the word poised at its centre, depicts anticipation perfectly. Every sentence pulses with an active verb – seemed, closed, reached and got, took, and heard – while at the same time the specificity of detail forces the scene into slow motion. The club doesn’t suddenly appear in the old man’s hand, but is systematically retrieved in a sentence that indirectly – with the words around, curved and round – suggests the menace of circling. Although the description of the young man is as taut as the man himself – a series of discrete observations crisply separated by commas – it is also thorough. Grenville allows time to examine him up and down, from hand to feet to face. The spear fitting, too, is drawn out: first comes the sound, then the interpretation. The suspense builds as it shifts from the metaphorical in the initial two sentences to the real, and continues to crescendo as Grenville moves from the old man, whose threat may be mainly gestural, to the young man, whose spear could certainly kill Thornhill, to the invisible hands that could easily wipe out all of Thornhill’s family, to the poignant representatives of that family – his wife and infant son – whose very cries are “squashed” and muffled, so as not to upset the exquisite balance of this moment and cause the spears to fly.”
(Christina Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly)

Reviews from Germany
” A masterpiece. Can there be any other historical novel as totally convincing as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River? Can we hope for another novel explaining landscapes and human interaction with such a sensual precision? I dare to doubt! It’s questionable that there is a novel this season as thrilling and gripping as this literary masterpiece….

Today Kate Grenville is one of the important narrative writers in the whole Anglo-Saxon world. She has found a unique was of describing the elemental confrontation of an unsophisticated white man with the eerie, positively fascinating Aborigines and their frightening, `primitive’ culture.

She gives this historical novel a deep and impressive literary dimension.”
(Gerhard Beckmann)

Deggendorfer Zeitung, Deggendorf
`…This book can’t undo all the suffering the original inhabitant had to endure, but it can build a bridge between different cultures. It can make a contribution to understanding human responses to extreme situations…’

`a fascinating novel showing “down-under’ from a completely different angle.’
(Die Woche)

`This book is a thrilling novel with heaps of historical sources and gripping pictures of Australian settlement.’
(Radio Euroherz)

`It’s difficult to escape the way this novel draws the reader in – full marks!’

`Thrilling, passionate, stirring…’

` Subtle and critical, Grenville weaves the success story of her ancestors around the historical tragedy which is still an important part of Australian society today.’
(NZZam Sonntag, Zurich)

` A great project, highly praised and prize-winning. The book is well-researched, generously narrated and strives to understand the injustice done towards the Aborigines.’
(Die Welt, Berlin)

`This is the story of the battle between two very different cultures, with only one loser. Yet Grenville shows, in her grand novel, that the acknowledged winner cannot get away without scars.’
(Echo, Austria)

`Kate Grenville uses beautiful terse language to describe in an outstanding way the poor living conditions in early London. A tense, emotional novel.’
(Blick, Zurich)

` A thrilling book, but written with great sensitivity. Simply and vividly told.’
(SBD Bibliotheksservice)

`William Thornhill is Kate Grenville’s very real model for her book – he is her great-great-great grandfather – exiled as a convict to Australia, struggling to survive, taking up land and finally being buried as a rich man after a rise to success.

But Kate Grenville doesn’t glorify her ancestor, instead she shows in detail the price the settlers and Aborigines have to pay – that violence creates more violence. Kate Grenville creates an oppressive atmosphere filled with fear in which the white intruders have to live and where they bring guilt upon themselves…a book which one day had to be written.’
(Monika Burghard, Radio Berlin)

`Kate Grenville was highly praised for The Secret River, and with good reason. The book is oppressive and tragic but also an informative historical novel, based on the colonization of Australia without a romanticised `adventure story’ view of those times. Kate Grenville defends the Aborigines, but she doesn’t moralise. Her narrative is sensitive and urgent, describing the lives of settlers and Aborigines living together.

Over a long period of time, William and Sal try to make a peaceful livelihood. They become rich, but guilt stays like a shadow over their new good fortune…A thrilling and gripping Australian novel.’
(Buchbesprechungen 2006)

`Kate Grenville creates with fantastically described scenery and vivid characters an impressive picture of an unknown world. She points out how hunger, dirt and illness affect humans: the result is frequently brutalisation and cruelty. William and Sal resist that with strength, endurance and love.

The novel takes the reader into a past epoch, but through the theme of the loss of values due to poverty it also has a contemporary relevance.’

In the 19th century, British convicts were part of the first white settlement in Australia. The fate of these, the poorest of the poor, who expelled the Aborigines to gain freedom for themselves, has never achieved enough attention until now, in Kate Grenville’s view.

The book, honoured with the Commonwealth Prize 2006, is qualified to fill in a blank place in the history of colonisation.’
(Westdeutsche Zeitung)

`Kate Grenville writes compellingly about life in the British penal colony – about misery, love and the struggle to survive. She describes how land was taken at that time and doesn’t conceal the atrocities done against, and by, the Aborigines.

A deeply moving book which stimulates reflection – a book you simply have to read.’
(Mostviertel-Basart )

Solomon Wiseman and William Thornhill

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 a few years of arriving here, he’d become a free man and “taken up land”, as the euphemism goes –  on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. He went on to become a wealthy man 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. 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.

was my forebear one of the honorable settlers who respected – at least to some extent – the original owners of the land, or was he was on the man who treated them brutally? Or did he occupy some middle ground?

 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. Whatever the individual man Solomon Wiseman had been like, he was part of the wave of British settlers who dispossessed the indigenous people.  

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, sometimes adapting and changing them as to exact date, exact place or exact individuals involved. For example, Thornhill’s first meeting with the Aboriginal people on the Hawkesbury, where he slaps an “old man”,  is based on a similar incident involving the first Governor. 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 takes many of its details from 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.

I relied for much of this information and inspiration on the work of historians. Without the expert, informed, painstaking work of many historians, a novelist couldn’t hope to enter the often-inaccessible world of the past. 

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. 

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.