Blogging for a Good Book
The The Secret River is at once a beautiful and lyrical portrait of a marriage and a family, and also a history of a time of change, power and enormous wrongs. It portrays an unyielding clash of cultures–perhaps one Americans don’t think of often–the conflict between the English and the Aborigines during the early settlement of Australia.
It covers the lives of the Thornhill family as they are transported from London to the penal colony in New South Wales, Australia, in the early 1800s. The story begins in London with its filth, stench and desperation. The main characters are first reprieved from certain death by hanging for what seem like astonishingly small crimes. Then, if they survive the nine-month sea voyage to New South Wales, they have to adapt to the new world with its reversed seasons, harsh heat and unfriendly wildlife. Many don’t adapt and give up or take to drink. Those who do survive see the forested land outside mud-streeted Sydney either as an enemy or as an opportunity. As William Thornhill plies his transportation business up and down the Hawkesbury River near Sydney, he develops a lust for the land. None of the convicts could have aspired to be landowners at home in England, but here is a vast and seemingly empty landscape and William Thornhill sees himself as a farmer. Officially the convicts are not allowed to clear the land around the river and start farming it, but Sydney needs the food, so the Governor turns a blind eye. This is a story that is at once sad and triumphant as it becomes clear that if the English convicts use the land to find freedom and prosper, then the aborigines must lose the land and in many cases their lives. But this is not a simple blaming tale. An ironically named minor character, Loveday, sums it up for all of the convicts, “”We must grasp the nettle, painful though it may be, or else abandon the place to the treacherous savages and return to our former lives.’ There was a silence, in which they all thought of their former lives.” (Page 298). Their lives are so much better as farmers in New South Wales that they are willing to go against their own consciences and perhaps commit brutal acts to get the land.
William Thornhill craves the land, but his wife, Sal wants to stay in Sydney and dreams of returning to London. They were childhood friends and have a love so deep that she chose to be transported with him, rather than stay in London alone with their first son (although her life in London without a husband to help support her would probably have been terrible). But Sal is terrified of the Australian bush and the aborigines who are constantly rumored to be conducting “outrages and depredations.” It speaks to her deep love that she is willing to move their five children to the bush with him, but she gives him five years and makes marks on a tree to count the days.
The Secret River is the first book in trilogy. The story continues in The Lieutenant (2008) and Sarah Thornhill (2011). It was nominated for numerous awards and was a finalist for the Man Booker prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2006. Kate Grenville based the Thornhills loosely on her own ancestors.
This is wonderful historical fiction, and also a moving and beautifully written family saga. I recommend it for readers of books like Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks, another moving and character-driven historical novel that is a fictionalized account of real events.
Check the WRL catalog for The Secret River.
I don’t usually watch Anime, but my daughter enthused about Spirited Away, so we sat down on the couch to watch it together on her laptop. That became a nudging, pushing, “Turn the screen this way” experience for both of us, so I was very pleased to discover that my library owns it on DVD. The library copy usually has several holds, so I had to wait. But it was worth it! This movie proves that a great story is a great story, no matter its format.
Ten-year-old Jahiro is unhappy about moving to a new house in a new town with a new school. As they are driving to their new home her father decides to take a short cut and the road ends at a strange, abandoned building. Jahiro doesn’t want to enter, but her parents seem strangely compelled. A short while later, without realizing it, they have entered a new world, peopled with odd, grotesque spirits. Jahiro is terrified, but her parents are unaware that anything is wrong and are soon trapped. From here the story gets compelling and creepier and creepier. Jahiro will need help to navigate this world and save her parents. But who is really her friend, and who is pretending to help her for their own ends?
I enjoyed the snippets of Japanese culture, that may have been so ingrained in the creators’ minds that they didn’t realize that they were showing something that might be different in other places. For example, on several occasions I noticed that in the midst of drama and action and danger, the characters stop to take off their shoes before going inside. Even in an emergency they can’t imagine running into a bathhouse with their shoes on. Other details were also intriguing, such as the night clothes and driving on the left. To me this shows that the creators were portraying what they saw around them, and not what an outsider might think a place is like.
This movie was animated the old-fashioned way with drawings, rather than being computer generated. I found the animation painterly, rather than the gaudy, flashing, flatness of some Disney movies. I loved the details – I could even recognize the bushes in the background and name hydrangeas, daphne, camellias and rhododendrons (not a quality appreciated by my family in the middle of a movie!).
My library’s double disk set included a Japanese documentary about the making of the movie. At the time the documentary was made in 2001 Spirited Away was the highest grossing film in Japanese history. It was dubbed into English without changing the original animation at all, which is unusual. The English language version won the Academy Award for an animated feature in 2003. The director, Hayao Miyazaki had his sixtieth birthday while Spirited Away was being made, but he still wrote, drew and directed for it. The documentary shows a meeting when they are working on a scene where Jahiro needs to give a pill to a dragon to save it. Miyazaki asks, “Has no one given a pill to a dog?” When it turns out only one person has even owned a dog, he mutters, “Pathetic!” and takes them all to a veterinary hospital to see all sorts of dogs dosed. I think this attention to detail shows all the way through this gripping, exciting and usual movie.
I recommend Spirited Away for everyone! It is suitable for children, but the gripping story, creepy events, great art and wonderful music will entertain young and old, even those who never watch this sort of thing.
Check the WRL catalog for Spirited Away