English & EAL

The Secret River: The Secret River

Lisa Tran

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After the attack on Spider’s home, the family had abandoned the area and returned to Sydney. During a trip past Spider’s old home, Thornhill felt an ‘impulse’ [pg 275] to visit the area. Believing that the area would be deserted, he was shocked to see a dead man, ‘his mouth ajar, his chin crusted where he had vomited’ [pg 276]. He heard a groan, and realised it was a boy around Dick’s age, who was choking on his vomit, with flies ‘crawling on his face’. Thornhill however, only stated that ‘ain’t nothing I can do for you, lad’ [pg 277]. Walking away from the bodies, ‘he knew that he would not tell anyone what he had seen…he was going to lock away in the closed room in his memory, where he could pretend it did not exist.’

When he arrived home, he discovered the natives stealing their corn. Even with his presence, the natives ignored him, continuing to break off cobs. A struggle between Thornhill and multiple women ensued, though Thornhill was stronger than all. With his gun now pointed, the natives began to run back into the forest. Long Jack however, turned and his expression dared Thornhill to use the gun. Thornhill fired a shot, and when he opened his eyes there was no one in sight, leaving the family behind. Then, Dan dragged across a native boy, around Dick’s age who struggled against Dan’s grip. Dan urged Thornhill to use the boy as bait so they could lure the natives out into the open, and then kill them. However, seeing that the boy may be the brother of the one at Darkey Creek, Thornhill refused letting the boy go. The next day, the assessed damage was six months of hard work. The family were part of an ‘unspoken agreement’ [pg 284] where  ‘fear [had] slipped unnoticed into anger, as if they were one and the same’ [pg 285].

Against Thornhill’s protests, Sal insisted on trepassing the native’s camp, just like how the family had been intruded. Once realising that they also used a broom like Sal to keep their home clean, a place to eat their food and a designated place to light their fires, Sal realised that the land would always belong to the natives. With this epiphany, Sal insisted on leaving Thornhill’s Point that very same day, ‘while we still got the chance’ [pg 288]. Refusing to give up his hard work, Thornhill and Sal lunged into a dispute. Dan interrupted exclaiming that Saggity’s place was burning down. Although Thornhill raised his hand to slap Sal, she was fearless, boldly stating that once Thornhill came back from Sagitty’s, the family was leaving, ‘with or without you, Will, take your pick’ [pg 291].

At Sagitty’s, Thornhill, Dan and Ned quickly realised that something was terribly wrong. The place the unusually silent with no sounds of people or dogs present. They found Sagitty’s dog, whose throat had been slit. Sagitty’s home had been completely burnt. When they found Sagitty, a spear had pierced through him in a way that his fate was already determined. Nevertheless, they rushed him onto the boat to take him to hospital. On the way, Thornhill reflected that Sal would hear about this incident, and that ‘she would leave the place without a backward glance’ [pg 295]. Knowing this, he still could not relinquish ‘knowing he was king’ of Thornhill’s Point, ‘as he would only ever be king in that place.’

Sagitty died soon after. A crowd of settlers had gathered at Maid of the River, a pub where Smasher retold the story of Sagitty’s unjustified death to all settlers, as though he had been there himself. Word had spread quickly, and Smasher insisted that the settlers sorted out the natives once and for all that very night. While everyone agreed, they needed Hope to get to the natives’ ground. Even with all his friends relying on Thornhill to provide the vessel, he hesitated. Dan however, whispered that Sal would only stay at Thornhill’s Point if the natives disappeared. Knowing this to be the truth, and with a powerful desire to retain both his wife and his land, Thornhill agreed, on the terms that ‘not a word [from] any of youse…[if] word gets out we done it, I come and slice out the tongue that blabbed’ [pg 299].

That night, the men approached the native’s camp, hidden by the forest. When the first native was spotted, the first shot was taken. Everyone simultaneously began to shoot as more natives were identified. One woman’s head was sliced off with a sword. The natives swiftly retaliated using their spears as weapons. Thornhill noted how ‘things had moved fast…he pointed his gun at blacks as they ran but the muzzle was always too late’ [pg 305]. Blackwood who had just reached the massacre aimed his own gun at Smasher, demanding that Smasher ‘back away.’ Disregarding Blackwood’s words, Smasher instead propelled Blackwood to the ground with his whip. Meanwhile, Thornhill tried taking his own shot at a Whisker Harry ‘but nothing happened.’ He watched as Whisker Harry’s spear struck Smasher in his chest. Smasher, weak and vulnerable, repeatedly cried, ‘Jesus Christ Almighty.’ Next, a shot had fired into Whisker Harry’s stomach, who kissed the ground before his death. Many natives had been killed including Black Dick while Long Jack was still alive, even with ‘half his head shot away.’ The settlers also had casualties, including Ned and Devine from Freeman’s Reach. Blackwood was found ‘spreadeagled in the remains’ [pg 309] of a loved one, ‘his mouth an inhuman square.’ Silence replaced the violence, and Thornhill ‘could only hear his own ragged breathing’ [pg 308] while Smasher refused help from the others throughout his painful death.

Encountering Conflict Analysis

Thornhill’s relationship with the natives

While the other settlers are resolute in protecting their families and land, Thornhill’s uncertainty at the Maid of the River to involve himself in the proposed slaughter highlighted an alteration in his view of the natives. Perhaps it was due to Dick’s interaction with the natives, who had accepted Dick’s company during their activities. Through the incident with Dick, Thornhill may have realised how, regardless of their colour and language, they had families and went about their daily lives in a similar fashion to the settlers – work and play. Furthermore, Sal’s epiphany may have instilled the idea that the natives had every right to the land, albeit their lack of fences. The fact that generations after generations had lived on the land illustrated to Thornhill that the settlers were indeed, intruders who had little to no right to eliminate the natives.

Sal’s turning point

Sal’s epiphany was the catalyst for Thornhill’s agreement to the genocide. As she had never moved past the boundary of their own home, her invasion of the natives’ area was the stimulus for her realisation that the natives had every right to the land. She had noticed that the natives were quite similar to the settlers in many ways, for they had set up designated areas much like rooms of a home. She realised that Australia was their home, much like Thornhill and Sal’s home in England. The natives had resided in Australia far longer than the settlers, ‘they was here…their grannies and their great grannies. All along’ [pg 288]. This turning point for Sal provided her the final push to stand her ground against Thornhill. Previously, Sal had been persuaded by Thornhill’s promises and encouragement for a short-term life at Thornhill’s Point. Instead, she refused to listen to Thornhill’s consoling words, demanding that they leave that very day. The conflict between husband and wife reached a complete divide, with Sal’s epiphany driving a wedge between their relationship.

Key Passages

“One blue and silver morning a week after the attack on Webb, the Hope glided past Darkey Creek…That was another thing he was going to lock away in the closed room in his memory, where he could pretend it did not exist.” [pg 275-278]

“Next morning Dick came running up to the hut, his feet flickering up the dust as he ran, to tell his father that the blacks were in the corn…You shut your lip, Willie, she said, and there was something in her voice that made Willie obey.” [pg 278 – 281]

“In the moment of waking he smelled the smoke…With you or without you, Will, take your pick.” [pg 285-291]

Important Quotes

Conflict between natives and settlers

“It’s like mine, he surprised himself thinking. Just the same colour as my own.” [pg 280]

“…a great shocked silence hanging over everything.” [pg 309]

Conflict with social hierarchy

“His voice was rich with the pleasure of being able to shout to another person.” [pg 282]

“For knowing he was a king, as he would only ever be king in that place.” [pg 295]

Fear of the natives

“He heard the false authority in his voice, whipped away by the breeze.” [pg 284]

“That was another thing he was going to lock away in the closed room in his memory, where he could pretend it did not exist.” [pg 278]

Conflict can change

“…fear could slip unnoticed into anger, as if they were one and the same.” [pg 285]

Thornhill’s conflict with owning land

“For a moment Thornhill tired to imagine it: turning his back on that clearing carved out of the wilderness by months of sweat.” [pg 288]

“…nothing would console him for the loss of that point of land the shape of his thumb. For the light in the mornings, slanting in through the trees. For the radiant cliffs in the sunset and the simple blue of the sky. For the feeling of striding out over ground that was his own.” [pg 295]

Conflict with Australian environment

“The door would be the first to go, and then the creeping things would move back in: the snakes, the lizards, the rats. The corn patch would sprout fresh grass that the kangaroos would come down and nibble at, knowing the rails of the fences apart. In no time at all, it would be as if the Thornhills had never called it theirs.” [pg 295]

“Every tree, every leaf, every rock seemed to be watching.” [pg 308]

Thornhill’s conflict with his actions

“Like the old man on his knees he felt he might become something other than a human, something that did not do things in this sticky clearing that could never be undone.” [pg 308]

“It seemed impossible that anyone with such a thing in his flesh could go on living.”

Sal’s turning point

“He realised that this was further than she had gone before.” [pg 286]

“They was here…their grannies and their great grannies. All along.” [pg 288]

“They are…out there now this very minute. Watching us, biding their time.”

“They ain’t going nowhere…they ain’t never going. And makr my words, Will, they’ll get us in the end if we stop here.”

Conflict between Thornhill and Sal

“All I know is, better even Butler’s bloody Buildings than creep around the rest of our lives waiting for a spear in the back.” [pg 290]

“With you or without you, Will, take your pick.” [pg 291]

“She would leave the place without a backward glance.” [pg 295]

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