The Secret River

by

Kate Grenville

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The Secret River: Part 4: A Hundred Acres Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
With Dan and Ned on Thornhill's Point, Thornhill feels better leaving to work on the river. The children grow quickly and well, and even Bub thrives. Business is good now that the Governor decided to settle towns near the mouth of the river, so Thornhill doesn't have to go as far to trade. He buys Sal gifts when he's in Sydney and buys himself his first pair of boots. They make him walk like a rich man. Thornhill says nothing to Sal, but whenever he's in the towns he hears about the atrocities committed by the natives.
That Thornhill's children are thriving suggests that Thornhill's Point isn't at all a bad place to live and call home. Whether Sal likes it or not, it's where her children are growing and developing—and it's the place they'll call home. Thornhill's boots function much like the gun does. They're a symbol of wealth and help him act the part, even if he doesn't feel like a gentleman. 
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In December of 1913, as Thornhill approaches his property on the river, Willie runs down wildly and says that the natives have arrived, though nobody's dead yet. He points to smoke further down the river. Thornhill listens to the faraway sounds of a dog and a child crying, and Willie tells his father to get the gun. They go to the hut where Sal gives Thornhill a bag of food and tobacco. She tells him to take it to the natives, but Thornhill refuses and insists that if they always give them things, the natives will never stop. Sal agrees. Thornhill realizes he must draw a line with the natives and decides to go down to talk to them.
That Thornhill's actions are guided by fear (and not spurred by an actual, obvious overture by the Aborigines) speaks to the power of the stories told in the newspaper, by Smasher, and in the townships. Thornhill cannot conceptualize that the natives might not mean him harm. Willie's insistence on getting the gun shows that he's been listening to Smasher and others like him. He believes in the power of brute force and violence.
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When Thornhill reaches the camp, it takes him a minute to notice a few older women and children sitting around the fire. He steps towards them and tells them to leave. One of the women stands, and Thornhill can barely look at her. He's never seen a woman naked, even Sal, and he's embarrassed. One of the women begins to speak without fear, and Thornhill replies by saying he could shoot her head off if he wanted to. One of the women gestures for him to leave. When Thornhill turns around, a group of six tall men is standing behind him.
Thornhill's observation that the woman speaks without fear is an interesting one, as it throws his own fear into sharp relief. His fear, and her lack of fear, points to Thornhill's insecurity in this situation. Because of this, he turns to violent language, even though she can't understand him. It makes him feel better and more in control, even though it doesn't actually accomplish anything.
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Thornhill decides to act like he's hosting these men and greets them loudly, though he wishes he had his gun. The men approach him, and the old man Thornhill once slapped comes right up, touches his arm, and begins to speak. Thornhill cuts him off, gestures around, and tells him that all the land is his now, but they can have the rest of the country. The old man picks up one of the daisy roots from the fire. He eats some, explaining something to Thornhill, and even offers Thornhill a piece. Thornhill deems the roots "monkey food" and refuses. The man looks as though he's waiting for an answer, but Thornhill doesn't know what to say.
All the Aborigines here seem intent simply on communicating with Thornhill, which again makes his own fear and threats seem exceptionally out of place. When Thornhill refuses the roots, he tells the Aborigines (and himself) that their way of life isn't worth trying to understand. It also again allows Thornhill to feel superior and in control. Admitting he has something to learn from these people would mean admitting that his power has limits and can be questioned.
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When Thornhill returns to the hut, he tells Sal that the natives will leave soon, but as Christmas passes, they don't leave. Eventually, Thornhill and Sal start to give the natives names. They call the old man Whisker Harry, and another is Long Bob. One of the younger men they call Black Dick. Sometimes the men watch Thornhill, Ned, and Dan work, but the women approach Sal often. One day, he watches as a large group of women, including one Sal named Polly, show Sal their wooden dishes and touch her skirt. One woman takes Sal's bonnet, and the entire group laughs.
Giving the Aborigines English names gives Thornhill and Sal a way to connect with their neighbors, though it should be acknowledged that doing so is a form of erasure of the native people’s own culture. It seeks to turn the Aborigines into individuals who are more acceptable and palatable to the white settlers by diminishing the importance of their culture and customs as much as possible.
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Dan, Ned, and Thornhill watch all of this, entranced by the bare breasts of the younger girls. They watch as Sal barters with the older women for one of their wooden dishes and trades sugar and her bonnet for it. Sal is proud of having struck a deal and tells Thornhill that there's no need for guns or whips to deal with the natives.
Sal's success in trading is a prime example of Blackwood's "take a little, give a little" principle. It shows that it is possible to come to agreements with the Aborigines and coexist peacefully and fairly.
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Thornhill realizes that he has no idea how to find food in the forest like the natives do. He wonders if the native women laugh at him for this reason. They spend their time strolling around and finding food, while the Thornhills spend all day working. Ned and Dan scorn the natives and think of them as animals, and Sal halfheartedly suggests they put them to work in the field.
When Thornhill recognizes that the Aborigines don't necessarily need to work in the way that he does, it shows that he's beginning to develop a more lenient and positive view of his neighbors. Ned and Dan, on the other hand, embody the colonial mindset that the Aborigines are inferior, even if the leisurely aspects of their lifestyle might be appealing.
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One day, Sal tells Thornhill that the natives have been around for three weeks. She says that she spoke to Mrs. Herring, who said that the natives come more than they go. Finally, she looks Thornhill in the eye and says that she won't stand for them coming and not going. She asks him to go ask Blackwood about it.
Though Sal seemed to be learning that she doesn't need to fear the Aborigines, her request shows that the fear persists. However, asking Thornhill to go to Blackwood instead of Smasher shows that she hopes for a nonviolent resolution.
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Thornhill struggles to find a place to land his boat at Blackwood's encampment. He notices that Blackwood hasn't cleared his land at all; the hut and corn sit half in the forest. Blackwood is waiting for Thornhill and doesn't greet him warmly. Thornhill hesitantly begins to explain that the natives won't leave, and finally Blackwood invites him to have tea. They sit for a while and Blackwood begins to tell Thornhill that once, a group of natives was waiting for him when he returned from Sydney. He says that they told him to leave. He tried to give them food and finally gave them his hat. They made it clear that Blackwood was to stay on the beach, and later, they sang up on the hill.
When Blackwood agreed to live where the Aborigines told him to, he showed them that he views them as stewards of the land and accepted his own inferiority on their land. His reaction to this kind of an encounter differs greatly from what Thornhill did: Blackwood chose to listen to what he did understand, while Thornhill actively ignored the natives’ request for him to leave. This shows where Thornhill and Blackwood differ: Thornhill feels entitled to the land as a white, English settler, while Blackwood is willing to compromise.
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Thornhill doesn't understand how this applies to his own problems with the natives. He thinks "give a little, take a little" is still very vague. Blackwood stands up and seems done, but Thornhill hears a woman's voice coming from the clearing. Blackwood answers her, though Thornhill can't understand his words. He sees that the woman is a black woman who looks angry, with a dark-skinned, blond child next to her. Thornhill realizes that Blackwood is speaking the woman's language. When Thornhill meets Blackwood's eyes, he says that he told the woman that Thornhill won't say anything. He insists that the natives are peaceful. When Thornhill tells Sal what he saw at Blackwood's, she declares that they'll have to figure out what to do with the natives on their own.
Again, Thornhill sees Thornhill's Point as his right as a white settler, not something he needs to negotiate with the natives for. The revelation that Blackwood speaks the language and has a black lover makes it abundantly clear that he has been successful in creating understanding between himself and the natives. By learning the language, he's shown this woman that he values her and her way of life. Her nakedness reinforces this: Blackwood isn't trying to make her give up her way of life to be more like him.
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Now that he's eight, Dick performs his chores in the morning and then disappears in the afternoons. Thornhill sometimes sees Dick playing with native children in the river, naked like his companions. Thornhill says nothing to Sal, but Bub tattles on his brother one day. Sal tells Thornhill to go fetch Dick back. When Thornhill approaches the camp, Long Bob is teaching children, including Dick, how to make fire.
Thornhill's leniency suggests that he's taking Blackwood's example to heart, even if it still doesn't make sense. The fact that Dick is choosing to play with the native children reinforces Thornhill's assessment that Dick is a child between worlds: though he occupies Thornhill's world comfortably, he can also feel comfortable and at home with those very different from him.
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Thornhill approaches to watch, thinking that making fire without flint is not really possible. Dick is transfixed watching Long Bob. As Thornhill tries to pull Dick away, smoke begins to come from the sticks. Long Bob stands up, wraps the sticks, swings them around, and the packet bursts into flames. The two men regard each other for a moment as the children gather around the fire. Thornhill puts a hand on his own chest and says "me, Thornhill." Long Bob smiles and repeats Thornhill's words. Long Bob puts a hand on his chest and speaks quickly, but Thornhill can't make out anymore than the first sound. He calls the man Long Jack. Long Jack looks secretive.
Thornhill treats this encounter as a referendum on whose culture is better, which shows that Thornhill still feels threatened by the presence of the Aborigines and the effect their proximity is having on his son. Even though he and Long Jack have an exchange that makes some degree of sense, Thornhill still chooses to not try to understand the man's name. Though Thornhill starts out trying to understand, when he finds it too difficult he settles for the comfort of his own language and culture.
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Looking around, Thornhill realizes that the black people around him aren't black, per se; they're just skin-colored. He tells Long Jack that he's a fine fellow, but that the white men will get all the black men in the end. Long Jack says something in reply that makes the children laugh, and Thornhill makes himself join in. Dick looks uncertain.
Thornhill again capitalizes on the fact that the Aborigines don't speak English and uses violent language to make himself feel superior. Dick's uncertainty shows that he very much follows Blackwood's school of thought, which sets this up as a recurring conflict between Dick and his father.
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That night, Sal tries to explain to Dick that he needs to act like a civilized person. Thornhill insists that Dick is old enough to work and stop playing, but Dick sulks, saying that the natives don't need flint and don’t work all day. Thornhill is overcome with rage and beats Dick with his belt. Sal won't meet Thornhill's eye as she puts the children to bed. She says that their children are just doing what they themselves did as children, sneaking off to be alone. Thornhill understands that his children have no conception of anything other than New South Wales and will never know London. He says that, nevertheless, Dick will come with him on the Hope from now on.
Thornhill's anger is a direct result of his fear that his own culture might not actually be the superior one. In this situation, violence towards either Dick or the Aborigines is the only way to make sure that he never has to actually consider the implications of what accepting the drawbacks of his own culture are (namely, giving up his claim to Thornhill's Point). Thornhill also realizes that Dick is a product of this new land, not of England: his value system will be different, which is another challenge to Thornhill's sense of right and wrong.
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The next day, Thornhill finds Dick trying to make fire like Long Jack showed him. Thornhill is angry for a moment, but knows that beating Dick again won't do any good. He squats down with Dick and they try to replicate the trick. After a while they finally see a puff of smoke. Thornhill tries to do as Long Jack did and tip it into a leaf with tinder and whirl it around, but the package flies apart. He laughs and tells Dick to have Long Jack show him again, but not to tell Sal.
Thornhill desperately wants Dick to see him and their western way of life as good and correct. By allowing Dick to continue to see his native friends, Thornhill shows that he values keeping his son more than he values carrying out Sal's wishes. This secret continues Thornhill's habit of creating silence between himself and Sal.
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Willie is the only child who knows anything of London. To the others, London is just a word. Sal sings songs about London to the children at night and Thornhill listens, but he realizes by the tone of Sal's voice that she's preparing the children to return to London, not just singing for them. When Sal begins to tell them the layout of a street, Thornhill corrects her geography. Dan corrects Thornhill, and he realizes that London is truly just a story now.
Sal doesn't think of London as a story: it's still real for her, and she desperately wants it to be real for her children too. Thornhill begins to understand that home is defined in part by where a person is planted. This allows Thornhill more justification for accepting the finality of New South Wales and insisting that they stay.
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One morning in January, the Thornhills wake to see smoke coming from the native's camp. Thornhill and his family watch as the natives seem to conduct a controlled burn on the hill. Sal calls out to Polly, who kills a lizard. Polly ignores her. Sal says uncertainly that Polly doesn't know her name yet. Ned remarks with disgust that they'll eat the lizard. Dick pipes up that lizard is good, but stops when Sal catches his eye. Dan remarks on the stupidity of burning land for a single lizard.
Though Sal is certainly willing to meet the Aborigines halfway, her insistence that Polly simply hasn't learned her name shows that she's only willing to make a nominal effort to understand them. She'd rather try to convert them to her way of doing things than learn about their culture, a mindset enabled by a colonialist system that tells individuals like Sal that they're superior.
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Several days later, it drizzles for a day before the heat returns. The burnt patch becomes green, which attracts kangaroos. Thornhill watches Black Dick hunt a kangaroo one day, and decides to try to shoot one himself. Thornhill has his eyes set on a buck, but when he tries to pull the trigger, the buck flees. Sal is disappointed, as is Thornhill. At dinner that night, the Thornhills can smell kangaroo meat cooking at the native camp.
As Thornhill realizes that the natives did something quite sensible (and importantly, something that entails thinking ahead), he's forced to acknowledge the fact that they aren't stupid. The location of the controlled burn suggests that the Aborigines may have been extending an olive branch of sorts to allow Thornhill to try to hunt.
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A few days later, Thornhill fills a bag with flour and goes to barter for some kangaroo meat. Whisker Harry accepts the bag, and Long Jack cuts off the kangaroo's foot and part of its leg for Thornhill. Thornhill thinks that he'd haggle if he had the language, but the natives turn their attention back to cooking their kangaroo before disappearing into the forest. Thornhill thinks their method of burying the kangaroo body in coals is indicative of their ineptitude.
Once again, Thornhill feels dumb and inferior for not knowing the natives’ language. Importantly, however, recognizing that knowing their language would be helpful shows that he's seeing the wisdom of Blackwood's ways and knows that learning about the Aborigines' practices would make his own life easier.
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Willie tries to skin the kangaroo leg, but his knife can't cut through the skin. Thornhill ends up chopping the leg with the axe and putting the pieces, fur and all, into the stew pot. They strain out the hair and drink the broth.
Once again, Thornhill must consider that the Aborigines have a better way of doing things, and that not learning some of these methods has a direct negative effect on his own family's wellbeing.
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That night, Thornhill thinks about the natives. He thinks that they're little more than savages running around naked, but they also don't seem to have to work to make ends meet. They have time to make their babies laugh, unlike the Thornhills. He realizes that they don't need garden fences, because they create spaces that lure wild game in. He thinks they're like the rich people in London who get to spend their days as they please, though their culture has no need for poor men—like he had been—to serve them. In the Aborigine culture, everyone is rich.
Finally, Thornhill makes the connection that the Aborigines aren't unintelligent savages at the mercy of the land. Unlike Thornhill, who actively fights the land to survive, they know how to use the land to feed themselves with very little effort. When Thornhill understands that not all cultures require an oppressive class system to function, he understands that a culture like this would mean that he wouldn't have to work so hard to be successful, or fight the unfairness of a system that punishes poor people.
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Now that he's successfully traded with the natives, Thornhill is less anxious leaving Sal and the children. He trades regularly with Smasher, as his lime is in high demand in Sydney. Thornhill hates going to Smasher's and tries to leave as quickly as possible. One day when Thornhill arrives, Smasher is by the water, lighting a pile of uneaten oysters on fire. Smasher greets Thornhill and says that all the oysters are gone now, which means the natives are also gone. When Thornhill and Smasher are almost done rolling the kegs of lime onto the Hope, Smasher's dogs start barking. They look out to the water and see a native man standing on the shore.
That Thornhill continues to trade with Smasher, even when he doesn't like him, is evidence that Thornhill feels trapped by the systems at play in the colony, both economic and social. Burning the oysters uneaten is a demonstration of Smasher's sense of superiority, showing that he doesn't need the oysters for food. The lime will be used to build in Sydney and advance the goals of the colonists instead of supporting the Aborigines' way of life.
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The man is holding an oyster and when he has Thornhill and Smasher's attention, he opens the shell with one hand and eats the oyster. He speaks slowly and mimes eating the oysters. Smasher yells at the man, who approaches and gestures at the burning pile and then at the water. The man begins shouting, but Smasher comes at him with a whip. Smasher whips the man once across the chest and then the man catches the end of the whip. They stare at each other for a moment before the man goes back to his canoe and leaves.
The man's attitude of wanting to teach Thornhill and Smasher reinforces Blackwood's assertion that the Aborigines are peaceful. The man only wants Smasher and Thornhill to understand that the oysters a resource that they can all enjoy and to treat the oysters as such. Smasher's reaction shows that he prioritizes his profits from lime over preserving these resources.
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Smasher begins yelling at Thornhill. He yells that he knows that he's been friendly with the natives, along with Blackwood. Thornhill yells that Smasher knows nothing, but feels panicky. Smasher tells Thornhill that the natives will kill him one day, but Thornhill insists they finish loading the lime. As he casts off into the water, Smasher yells that Thornhill shouldn't come to him when he gets speared.
Smasher sees Thornhill and Blackwood as threats to the project of settling Australia. For him, violence is the only way forward as it's the only way that will allow him to continue to think of his own culture as superior without question.
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