William Thornhill is born in England into extreme poverty. But his childhood friend, Sal, grows into the love of his life. They marry, have a child and he runs her father's boating business. During a time of hardship, William is caught stealing and is sentenced to the penal colony of New South Wales along with Sal, their son, Willie, and another son born on the voyage. William is indentured to his wife and after a year becomes an emancipist and allowed to go his own way. He talks Sal into moving to a site he has found on the Hawkesbury River where they plan to farm and save enough to return to England. At least, Sal wants to return. Neither knows much about farming and less about living in the wilds of Australia. When a band of aborigines picks their land to settle, they adapt and learn small things from the natives. But there are other Englishmen living on the river who incite each other against the aborigines creating a tense and untenable situation.
I'll just say that I liked the first part of this book. William and Sal are sympathetic characters, and their love for each other is touching. The characters of their children are less developed which I thought detracted from the story. Up until the conflict with the aborigines becomes inflamed, I was enjoying the book. William becomes less sympathetic, even though I could understand some of his confusion and ambivalence. While I'm sure the conflicts depicted are historically accurate, I didn't like reading about the atrocities committed by both sides. It's a tale much like what happened to the native Americans, unbearably sad; but I didn't get a true feel for that sadness. The ending was not satisfying for me either. I would have to say my feelings about The Secret River are just so-so.
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