Kate Grenville started out writing a nonfiction account of her great-great-great grandfather’s family, but she ended up with too many questions. So, she fictionalized their story and combined it with what she had read about other Australian pioneers.
William Thornhill grows up in poverty in early 19th century London, but he sees a future for himself when Mr. Middleton, a waterman on the Thames, takes him on as an apprentice. William has grown up with Sal Middleton, his boss’s daughter, and he marries her shortly after he reaches journeyman status. However, things go wrong for Middleton, and William finds his livelihood is much more difficult to earn. Finally, he is caught stealing part of a cargo to support his family.
Although he is sentenced to death for theft, William manages to get his sentence reduced to transportation, and his family is allowed to accompany him. In Australia, although life is primitive, it doesn’t take him long to realize he can make money there and maybe return to England in style. However, when he takes a job ferrying goods from a river where settlers have begun farming, he sees a piece of land he can own by settling on it.
Now begins a conflict, with William realizing he will never return to England and Sal only wanting to return. The conflict is heightened when some of the settlers have clashes with the aboriginal people.
I was certainly engaged by this novel, and I felt that Grenville did a good job of portraying the conflicts with the aborigines. Grenville’s characters are flawed but totally believable. She looks unflinchingly at Australia’s brutal origin story, which is very similar to our own.