The Secret River

The Secret River Summary and Analysis of A Clearing in the Forest


In September 1813, William, Sal, and their children (Willie, Dickie, Bub, and baby Mary) arrive at Thornhill's Point to establish their claim to 100 acres of land. Although Sal exhibits little enthusiasm, William is ecstatic to set foot on his own land. The first night, William and the boys rig up a tent for shelter and start a fire. Sal finds the wilderness intimidating. Although the journey from Sydney to Thornhill's Point only took one day, she feels as if they have traveled farther than on the six-month journey from London to Sydney. Previously blinded by his own desire to settle the land, William realizes that life will be hard for Sal on Thornhill's Point. The land is untouched by human hand, and it will take tremendous effort to carve out a piece of civilization.

The morning after their arrival, William and the two older boys, Willie and Dick, set to work planting their first patch of corn and officially claiming the land as their own. William experiences an acute sense of disappointment when he sees that the flat land by the river has been tilled by someone else. Unwilling to sacrifice his dream now that it is finally within his grasp, William lies to his sons, telling them that the freshly turned soil is the work of moles. Dick doesn't believe his father and articulates William's fear - that the blacks had planted a crop. Aware that his son is right, William nevertheless dismisses Dick's concern, telling him that "Them poxy blacks don't plant nothing." William then pulls up all the daisies (the flowers of the yams) and sets to work planting his patch of corn.

Just as William finishes planting his corn, he realizes that two Aboriginal men are watching him. The two men, one old and one young, stand fearlessly in front of William with the dreaded spears in their hands. William nervously starts to talk, but the older man cuts him off. The older man gestures to the land surrounding them, clearly explaining something to William. However, William does not understand a word and begins to get annoyed. William adopts the tone of the English gentry when he addresses the two men, attempting to demonstrate his superiority in the language of his own social superiors. The old man gestures to the patch of land where the daisies once grew. William decides enough is enough and tells the old man that the land is his now, they can have all the rest. Suddenly, the boys appear with Sal not far behind. Sal reverts to experience with Scabby Bill and assumes that the Aborigines can be bought off with food. The men accept the pork but do not eat it. Finally, the younger man puts the pork down on the ground and smells his fingers with disgust. The pork was no longer fresh.

At a shout from Willie, William turns to see the older man picking up their spade. Willie tries to pull it out of his grasp, but the old man pulls himself free. Frustrated by the absence of a common language and determined not to give any ground, William slaps the old man's shoulder repeatedly, shouting now with each slap. The old man reaches for the club tied to his waist, while the young man lifts his spear to the ready. William and Sal hear the unmistakable sound of spears being fitted into spear-throwers all around them. Although they can't see the other Aborigines, they are surrounded. The old man grunts and turns to leave, dropping the spade on the ground. However, the young man does not immediately follow. Instead, he walks up to William and pushes him in the chest. Then, he slaps him three times, just as William had done to the old man. The young man then makes a gesture no one can misunderstand - Go away. The young man then disappears into the forest. The next morning, William wakes up to find their tent encircled by a ring of spears. He quickly pulls them up before Sal sees them.

Although the encounter with the Aborigines was unsettling, William has no intention of leaving Thornhill's Point. He and the boys continue planting the corn in a neat patch along the river. Resigned to keeping her part of the bargain, Sal sets about creating a 'yard' out of the wilderness, which she rings with stones. Sal does not venture out of her yard, concentrating all of her attention on the things she is familiar with - the fire, the tent, the table. Each day, she makes a mark in the one of the trees, counting down the five years until they return to London.

With the corn growing well, William decides to explore the upper ridge. From the high vantage point, he can see Sal in the yard and Willie in the corn patch. He notices a rock with fresh lines scratched into it. He realizes that it is an intricate drawing of a bream fish. He then notices another drawing. With an exclamation of shock, William stares down at a drawing of his boat, the Hope. He realizes that the Aborigines have been watching their every move. He understands that the land he has claimed is not empty. it is inhabited by a people who view it as their own.

For weeks after their arrival, Smasher Sullivan visits the Thornhills. Sal's happy reception of the rather off-putting Smasher makes William realize the extent of her loneliness. Smasher expounds on his favorite topic, the atrocities committed by the Aborigines against the settlers. Sal tries to brush off stories as exaggerated, but she is left disturbed by Smasher's visit.

William builds a crude hut to replace the tent, and Sal feels more comfortable within its flimsy walls. William encourages the neighbors to visit in an effort to alleviate Sal's loneliness. One Sunday, they receive a string of visitors: Smasher Sullivan, Saggity Birtles, Webb, Loveday, and Mrs. Herring. The conversation soon turns to the blacks, with the men telling gruesome stories and arguing that violence is that only way to deal with them. Mrs. Herring, the only woman living on her own along the Hawkesbury, disagrees with the men. She has found a way to live alongside the Aborigines. Mrs. Herring shares her food when asked and turns a blind eye if they help themselves. She says that there is enough to go around.

When Thomas Blackwood arrives later in the day, Smasher again rails against the blacks. Smasher knows that Blackwood sympathizes with the Aborigines, and he rants against them to annoy Blackwood. However, Blackwood has not come to argue with Smasher. He has some advice for William. Blackwood explains to William that the daisies he dug up to plant his corn are the flowers of a yam that forms a staple of the Aboriginal diet. He tells William that if he digs up the daisies, the Aborigines will go hungry. Blackwood repeats his earlier advice, "But when you take a little, bear in mind you got to give a little."

William finds out that he has been assigned two newly arrived convicts to help him on Thornhill's Point. He travels to Sydney to pick them up. While he is in Sydney, William buys Sal an engraving of Old London Bridge, which becomes her most treasured possession. When William arrives at the wharf to pick up his two convicts, he is unpleasantly reminded of his own period of servitude and the humiliation that he suffered. The defeated and wan state of the men leaving the boat convinces William that he will never go back to London. He knows the stain that attaches itself to the name of a man who has been deported. If he returns to London, he will never be free of his past, and his children will be tarred with the same brush. WIlliam collects his two servants, Ned and Dan Oldfield, who was his childhood friend, and returns to Thornhill's Point determined to make it a success.

In November, as the summer heat settles down on the camp, Sal falls ill with milk fever. The doctor refuses to come and treat Sal because she is only the wife of a former convict. Mrs. Herring comes to stay and take care of Sal during her illness. Sal makes William promise to bury her facing north, towards home. However, Sal does pull through and soon recovers her health.


The establishment of Thornhill's Point brings the conflict between the settlers and the Aborigines to the center of the novel. Until William plants his patch of corn, the Aborigines play a peripheral role in the novel. They hover behind the scenes, present but with little impact on the events. The act of pulling up the daisies and planting his corn sets William on a path of direct conflict with the Aborigines. The land now has two owners, neither of whom will abandon the land willingly. The ring of spears that the Aborigines leave around William's hut are a sign of their willingness to fight for their land. Sal and William soon realize that these Aborigines cannot be bought off with a rotten piece of meat like Scabby Bill.

William is torn between Smasher Sullivan's racist hatred of the Aborigines and his argument that violence is the only way to deal with them, and the moderate approach symbolized by Mrs. Herring and Thomas Blackwood that suggests it is possible to live side by side with the Aborigines. William does not like Smasher's crude mouth and drunken ways, and he respects Blackwood's work ethic and taciturn character. William wants to follow Blackwood's advice of giving a little to take a little, but he does not understand how to implement it. He is willing to give the Aborigines some food, but he is not willing to share his claim to the land. This chapter introduces William's inner struggle to deal fairly with the Aborigines without sacrificing any aspect of his dream. Smasher Sullivan and Blackwood represent the two sides of the moral scale, and William must decide which side to choose.

William's initial assumption that the land is empty is challenged with each new day on Thornhill's Point. The permanent presence of the Aborigines is fully brought home to him when he finds the drawing of the fish and the Hope on the rock on the ridge. The artistic detail of the drawings contradicts his view of the Aborigines as savages. The drawings demonstrate that they have the same creative drive and skill as more 'civilized' societies. Perhaps most importantly for William, the drawings symbolize the ever present watchfulness of the Aborigines. He realizes that he and his family have been closely monitored since their arrival. The sensation of being watched makes him feel like an interloper on land that he claims as his own. The indignation that he feels at being monitored is one of the events that will eventually push him to choose Smasher's violent approach over Blackwood's compromise.

Through the character of Sal, Grenville explores the drive in Western man to tame nature, to impose the orderly stricture of civilization on the wilderness. Sal's creation of a yard is her attempt to bring one small area of that new and incomprehensible land under her control. She cannot relate to anything around her: the birds, the trees, the smells are all too far removed from what she knows. As William observes, the verdant and pulsing nature is not real to her. Her eyes can only focus on the solid reminders of civilization - a table or a needle and thread. The ring of rocks around the yard symbolizes the barrier in her mind between civilization and the wild.

Grenville expands on the theme of power and hierarchy introduced in Part One: London. When William arrives at the wharf to pick up his assigned convicts, he remembers the smell and feel of degradation. Despite his pardon and 100 acres, his encounter with the captain of his transport ship makes him feel small and insignificant again. Captain Suckling is a drunk and a failed landowner but his social station still gives him the right to treat William as if he nothing. William will always be a lowly convict in his eyes. William realizes that the only way he can become a respected man is to forge his own way in the new society being created out of the wilds of Australia.

William's need for power rears its head in his treatment of the two convicts assigned to him. For the first time in his life, William is in control of another's fate. He experiences a great thrill ordering Ned and Dan around and forcing his childhood friend to address him as Mr. Thornhill. He begins to model some of his speech patterns and mannerisms on those of the gentry he so hated in London. The two men under his command symbolize his first step up the social ladder. He is no longer the boy whose backside was burned by the fire while begging to be allowed to row himself into the ground on the Thames. He is a now the master, looking down on those below.