The Secret River

by

Kate Grenville

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The Secret River: Part 2: Sydney Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Thornhill arrives in Sydney, Australia, a sad and jumbled town, in September of 1806, after a nine-month journey at sea. The light hurts his eyes after so long below deck, and he vomits standing on still ground. He hears Sal cry out for him, but a guard pushes her back. Minutes later, Thornhill hears his name called and the guard "assigns" him to Sal. Willie doesn't seem to recognize his father. Now, Thornhill gets to look at the new baby, who was born at Cape Town several months before. They named him Richard after Sal's father.
Although Sal and Thornhill are still lower-class citizens, assigning Thornhill to Sal as a convict servant suggests that she's a step up in the world. As the novel will show later, having convict servants is a privilege one earns when they're free, and not before. This makes it clear that there's a very different organizational system for society here in New South Wales.
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The government issues Sal a week's worth of food, some blankets, and a hut. Thornhill is, essentially, a slave, bound to work for Sal doing whatever she wants. They're on their own as soon as they collect their items and inspect their hut. As the sun sets, an older drunk couple brings them a kettle with a wooden bottom. Thornhill thinks it's a joke, but the woman tells them how to use it. The man warns them against the "savages" before they leave the Thornhills.
The kettle is representative of Thornhill's initial experience of culture shock: it's so foreign to him, he thinks these people are making him the butt of a joke. In reality, the culture in New South Wales entails different ways of cooking that Thornhill simply hasn't seen before. These early weeks, then, will be consumed by figuring out how the culture works.
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Thornhill studies the land. The town is mostly hovels, and a wooly forest goes on for miles behind it. It's entirely foreign to Thornhill, who's only ever seen London. He thinks of his journey to this strange place and how he thought of Sal for all those months at sea. The family finally goes into the hut, and Willie insists on sleeping next to Sal. When he finally drifts off, Sal and Thornhill embrace and cry.
The relationship in Thornhill's mind between Sal and this new environment shows that, to a degree, he does believe that home is where Sal is: she's the only thing he knows in this strange land. Without any other way to feel like he belongs in this new land, Sal is all he has.
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In the morning, Thornhill wonders if the black man who confronted him in the night was a dream. He doesn't dwell on it and instead turns to finding employment rowing boats in Sydney Cove. He works mostly for Mr. King, smuggling casks of liquor around the customs office at night.
New South Wales is no less lawless than London was, which shows that the thousands of miles have done little to alter that part of the culture. Thornhill is still able to do what he knows and make money doing so.
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In New South Wales, the government has instituted a ticket system in which convicts can apply for a “ticket of leave” after a year. This allows them to work and support themselves, but not to leave New South Wales. Sal and Thornhill joke for the first year that she's the mistress. They soon move into a larger hut and Sal opens a rum bar in one of the rooms. At night, they talk to each other about their future. They see from those around them that it's wholly possible to move up in the world here, and eventually they'll be able to return to London after making their fortune.
From a contemporary perspective, the existence of the ticket system shows that England was more interested in colonizing Australia than it was in truly punishing people: it allowed the people a way out, but only after they left their mark on New South Wales. The system is different enough from London that Thornhill stands to make something of himself.
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Sal is consistently astonished at the lightning and thunder, as well as the crawling creatures. She finds the trees, which are silvery gray and formless, insulting. She holds tightly to a piece of roof tile she found on her last day in London, and tells Thornhill that when they return to London, she'll take it back to where she found it. Thornhill encourages Sal to take walks outside the town limits, but she prefers to sit on the wharf at Sydney Cove.
Sal in particular refuses to adjust and integrate fully into this new culture, and instead fixates on her return to her home, London. Thornhill's insistence that she step outside the township suggests that he's learned that there are things worth experiencing outside of the town. Sal's unwillingness is evidence that she's actively trying to not adjust.
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An Aborigine called Scabby Bill lives in the settlement. He sleeps outside the hut and Thornhill and Sal give him bread sometimes. He has scars on his chest and can sometimes be convinced to dance for a sip of rum. There are several natives like Scabby Bill who live in the settlement, and many others in the forest who are invisible. They're all naked, and Thornhill thinks that there's no indication that they feel like they own the land: there are no signs, fields, or homes to signal ownership. However, white men in the settlement are sometimes speared by natives. This troubles Sal, and Thornhill is glad to be on the water all day where the spears can't get him.
Thornhill and the other white men in the settlement have a very western conception of what signals ownership of a place (signs, fields, etc). This, of course, ignores the ways in which the Aborigines interact with the land and think of it as home. The spearing incidents show that the Aborigines feel threatened by these white invaders and do wish to protect themselves against them, and Thornhill's fear suggests that they pose a very real threat.
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In Sydney Cove, Thornhill runs into many acquaintances from the Thames. He meets Thomas Blackwood again, who insists, when Thornhill explains the circumstances that brought him to New South Wales, that someone accepted a bribe and ratted Thornhill out to Mr. Lucas. Blackwood appears to be doing well in Sydney without a false-bottomed boat, as carrying goods between Sydney and a fertile stretch of land 50 miles away is good business. The route follows the sea and then the Hawkesbury River. The river is named after Lord Hawkesbury, who sent both Blackwood and Thornhill to New South Wales.
The naming of the Hawkesbury is significant on several levels. The novel will show that it's a place where a man can become rich, like Lord Hawkesbury. In the same vein, the river will be the livelihood for several men, Blackwood and Thornhill included, echoing the way Lord Hawkesbury saved their lives by sending them to New South Wales in the first place. The river and the man it's named after are in many ways one and the same.
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The Hawkesbury River is the place where a boatman has a good chance of getting rich, either by farming or transporting farmers' crops. It's very remote, however, and populated by warlike natives. Blackwood says nothing when Thornhill asks about the "outrages and depredations" reported by the Sydney Gazette.
Thornhill begins to see that the Hawkesbury River can be a key to advancing his own place in the social hierarchy. Blackwood is proof of this. Blackwood's silence about the "outrages and depredations" suggests that his opinions might not be popular.
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After a year, Thornhill applies for and is granted his ticket of leave. When the baby, Dick, is able to feed himself, Sal becomes pregnant again. James is born in March of 1808 and is a sickly baby. Sal barely sleeps as she comforts him every night, and Thornhill resists bonding with him. They nickname him Bub.
Bub is the first Thornhill who will truly call New South Wales home. This culture is the one he'll grow up knowing and thinking of as normal, which creates a sense of distance between him and his family, who still think of London as home.
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Three years after the Thornhills arrived in New South Wales, Thornhill can afford to purchase meat three times per week. Bub survives infancy, and Thornhill decides to find new employment after Mr. King takes on a new clerk who keeps detailed lists and begins to notice things missing. Blackwood's convict servant fell overboard a few weeks before Christmas, and Thornhill doesn't hesitate to take his place. On his first journey to the Hawkesbury, the wind is icy even though it's the middle of summer. The water swells, and Thornhill realizes he's scared. After half a day, Blackwood points to an arc of forest and says that it's where the Hawkesbury comes out. The mouth of the river is well hidden in a bay beyond some rocks.
Thornhill's ability to purchase meat is a marker of how well he's doing in New South Wales. The journey to the Hawkesbury River feels to Thornhill like leaving the country all over again: he becomes, in a sense, an immigrant in this new landscape. This illustrates the fact that, at this point, New South Wales is an entirely unknown place to Westerners. 50 miles might not be a great distance today, but in 1811, it meant the difference between civilization and complete wilderness.
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Blackwood skillfully navigates the boat into the small bay, and Thornhill searches for the mouth of the Hawkesbury. Blackwood seems to point the boat towards solid land, but the river finally appears. Thornhill thinks the land looks like something out of a dream. Blackwood points to oyster shells and explains that the natives fish regularly. When Thornhill asks where the natives are, Blackwood replies that they're everywhere. He gestures to smoke columns running up the river, and explains that they're signaling each other that the boat is coming up the river. Blackwood sternly says that they'll only see the natives when the natives want to be seen.
The way that Blackwood speaks about the Aborigines suggests that they are very much a part of the land: the forest surrounding the river hides them, and they live off the land as evidenced by their fishing habits. They're also in control of how and whether they interact with the white settlers. It's worth noting that Blackwood's language is respectful of this power that he describes in the Aborigines. He recognizes that they're in control, and he's a mere bystander.
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Blackwood and Thornhill continue up the winding river until they reach a bay. Blackwood calls out for a man called Smasher Sullivan, and explains to Thornhill that Smasher burns oyster shells for lime. Thornhill squints at Smasher's hut and notices something that looks flayed hanging in the yard. Smasher rows out to Blackwood's boat. Blackwood is quiet, and Smasher proudly shows off a pair of black human hands, cut off at the wrists, saying that the man they belonged to won't steal from him again. Blackwood is angry and instructs Thornhill to help him row away. He hands Thornhill his telescope, and it takes Thornhill a minute to realize that the flayed body is the body of one of the natives.
Smasher, unlike Blackwood, is introduced to the reader as a person who does not accept that the natives have any power: butchering this black man is a clear message that he believes he has the power here. At this point, Thornhill is stuck following along with Blackwood's way of thinking about the Aborigines. This sets a precedent for Thornhill, instilling in him a belief that the Aborigines are people worth respecting.
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When Blackwood speaks, he angrily says that men have to pay a fair price to take things. After a silence, Blackwood points to where his property is. He explains that he bought his pardon two years ago and picked out a hundred acres. Thornhill thinks that he doesn't know anyone who owns land, and is astonished that a convicted man can own land. Blackwood explains that one only has to choose a place and stay there to claim it as one’s own.
Blackwood defines ownership in a way that's very appealing to Thornhill, as it doesn't necessarily require money. It also shows him that he is capable of owning land—and is therefore fully capable of attaining the status that comes along with being a landowner.
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The boat passes a bend in the river that looks like a man's thumb, and for the first time, Thornhill feels as though he's fallen in love with this piece of land. He imagines standing there and calling it Thornhill's Point, but acts as though he doesn't care. Blackwood sees through this façade and tells Thornhill that the land is no good, and tells him again that out here it's "give a little, take a little," or you're dead. Thornhill insists he agrees, but Blackwood doesn't seem to believe him. Thornhill continues to think of the thumb-shaped piece of land.
Again, Blackwood's theory of "give a little, take a little" suggests that the native people should be treated like stewards of the land with as much of a claim to ownership over it as any white man. Blackwood seems to believe that, whatever Thornhill thinks on the matter, the land is owned—just not in a way that makes sense to Thornhill, with his western way of thinking about land ownership.
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When he returns to Sydney, Thornhill tells Sal about the river and the people that live there. He doesn't mention his dream of owning land there. Months later, in July of 1809, Thornhill finally tells Sal about the land. Sal laughs at the thought of farming, but realizes that Thornhill is serious. She insists that if they stay in Sydney, they'll have enough money to return to England in a few years. At the sound of their parents’ raised voices, Willie and Dick wake up and watch the two argue. Thornhill is proud that each of his three boys have their own blanket at night. He realizes that Sal's dreams are small and cautious, and although he drops the subject, he doesn't forget the land. Every trip up the river, Thornhill watches with dread to see if someone else has claimed it.
At this point, it's becoming more evident that Sal and Thornhill feel very differently about their lives in New South Wales. While Thornhill sees opportunities for advancement and is ready to think of New South Wales as a final stopping point because of those opportunities, Sal still sees the whole thing as a stopover on their way back to London, where she truly feels at home. Thornhill sees evidence, like his boys' individual blankets, as proof that his family is thriving here in a way they wouldn't have been able to in London.
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A year later, Blackwood decides to retire to his place on the river, but he takes Thornhill to get him his pardon before he does. Thornhill purchases a petition from a man who charges rum, and Thornhill proudly signs his name at the bottom. He and twelve other men take their petitions to the Governor's estate and stand in a large drawing room. Thornhill can't understand the Governor's Scottish accent, so he wonders what it would be like to live this grandly. When the Governor calls Thornhill, he pardons him absolutely. The term of Thornhill's natural life had been four years, five months. At home, Thornhill and Sal toast to his good fortune.
Getting the pardon is a measureable step in Thornhill's ascent in the social hierarchy. This scene mirrors Thornhill's binding as an apprentice: just as he did then, Thornhill imagines his bright future and how high he might rise as he receives the tools to possibly get there. Like the binding, it also throws Thornhill's status into sharp relief by placing him next to a man as important as the Governor. Though this will provide him opportunities, Thornhill cannot forget that he's of a much lower class than the Governor.
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Thornhill decides he needs a boat of his own, as that will allow him to do well enough to not have to steal. He and Sal get out their cash box and count out 35 pounds, enough to buy one of the well-made skiffs from a man in the cove. Sal says that she read in the Gazette that Blackwood is selling his boat for 160 pounds but will take less, and tells Thornhill to borrow the rest of the money from Mr. King. She insists that they'll be able to pay it off and move back to London in a few years. Thornhill agrees, but he still dreams of moving to the land on the Hawkesbury.
Sal and Thornhill's dreams continue to diverge, and Thornhill continues to keep quiet about his dreams. Again, this difference in dreams brings out the differences between Sal and Thornhill's London childhoods. Sal was happy and well fed in London, but Thornhill understands that providing a good life in London will be exceptionally difficult given the hardships he has experienced.
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Thornhill borrows 115 pounds from Mr. King, who shakes hands with Thornhill as though they're equals. When Sal comes to admire the boat, pregnant again, she suggests they rename the boat after her father's boat, the Hope. Thornhill renames the boat and Sal comes to see it with the new baby. The Hope is perfect, and Willie begins working with Thornhill now that he's eleven. The two spend much of their time trading along the Hawkesbury and develop a loyal clientele. Thornhill works nonstop, driven by the fear of the loan and hope for a future that's better than the past, particularly since he's noticing his body beginning to age and ache.
Mr. King's handshake is proof that the pardon actually meant something. This shows that the legal and social structure in Australia is directly responsible for Thornhill's good fortune, as no system exists in England that would allow him to take out a loan like this. Further, the loan allows Thornhill to truly own something, which certainly contributes to Thornhill's sense of success.
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Thornhill's family thrives: Bub is now three and looks as though he'll survive; Dick is introspective and solemn; and the new baby, Johnny, loves to tinker with things. Sal is exceptionally happy. By early 1812, Thornhill has paid back a quarter of his loan to Mr. King and knows that he needs to take the land on the Hawkesbury before it's too late. He knows that although technically he needs a paper signed by the Governor, in reality, England needs people to settle the land and will look the other way.
Sal's happiness suggests that she might actually be adjusting to life in New South Wales, whether or not she's willing to admit it. Again, the legal structure of the colony (as well as England's goal of simply populating its new colony) makes it possible for people to advance without much capital or anything else. For men like Thornhill, it's a land of great opportunity.
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Sal becomes pregnant again, and on New Year's Eve 1813, Thornhill tells her again about the land. She laughs, admitting that she had thought he was seeing another woman with how dreamy he's been looking. He asks Sal to give it five years and says that then they can go back to England. He reminds her of their dreams of buying a house in London, and she finally agrees to go once the baby's born. She agrees to five years and no more.
New South Wales is becoming home for Thornhill, particularly now that Sal agrees to go along with his dream of owning land. When Thornhill mentions their dream of owning a home in London, it suggests that owning a home is also important to Sal, though the location is more important to her than ownership itself.
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