The Secret River

by

Kate Grenville

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The Secret River: Strangers Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Alexander, the ship that brought William Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and his two children to New South Wales, had been at sea for nearly a year. Now, Thornhill, Sal, and the children lie in a hut made of bark, sticks, and mud. Sal and the children are asleep, but Thornhill can't bring himself to sleep. He gets up and is aware that, although there are no guards, he's in a prison surrounded by thousands of miles of water. He feels small in this vast land and doesn't recognize any of the stars.
The novel begins by making it clear that Thornhill feels unmoored and displaced. Thornhill sees New South Wales as a prison rather than a land of opportunity, and certainly not as a home for him and his family. The description of the hut shows that Thornhill and Sal aren't of a particularly high class, and so shows that they're living here in relative poverty.
Themes
Social Order, Hierarchy, and Class Theme Icon
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
During the months Thornhill spent on the Alexander, he tried to listen for Sal's voice from the women's quarters and spent his time mentally paddling along the Thames River. Now that he's in New South Wales, he knows he'll never see that river again. Thornhill knows that he'll die here and feels as though he died in London. He thinks that being here is worse than death.
Thornhill's mental paddling along the Thames shows that London is his true home, though Sal is also an important element of how he thinks about home. This shows that Thornhill’s sense of home depends, at least in part, on the people he loves.
Themes
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Thornhill sees darkness moving in front of him and realizes that a black man has appeared before him. The man is naked and scarred, and his spear seems to be a part of his body. Thornhill feels naked and vulnerable and fears for his children's lives. He shouts angrily at the man to leave and steps forward. As he raises his hand, he notices that the stone at the tip of the spear is jagged. The black man begins to speak, but Thornhill can't understand what he says. Suddenly, Thornhill understands the man is saying, "be off!"
The encounter with this man makes it abundantly clear that this place is not, and perhaps never will be, Thornhill's home: it's this man's home, and he's learned enough English to tell the invaders as much. Here, Thornhill retaliates only because he's scared, not because he thinks he has any claim to the land. This shows that fear is often one of the primary motivators for the violence involved in the conflict between the English and the Aborigines.
Themes
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Language, Literacy, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Thornhill finds himself speechless. He thinks that he already died once and can die again, but looks back towards Sal and the children. When he turns back to face the black man, the man is gone. Thornhill looks at the forest and thinks that it could hide a hundred black men and their spears. He stumbles back into the hut, even though he knows it offers no safety. He lies down next to Sal and anticipates the stabbing pain of one of the spears in his belly.
Now that Thornhill has met the natives, the landscape is even less inviting. Thornhill senses even now that the Aborigines and the land are intrinsically parts of each other: the landscape is threatening because of the humans that hide within it, and the humans are scary because of their close relationship to the mysterious land.
Themes
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
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