The Secret River Summary, Themes, Characters & Synopsis

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About the Book- The Secret River

TitleThe Secret River
AuthorKate Grenville
Publication Year2005
PublisherCanongate Pub Ltd
No. of Pages352 Pages
GenreHistorical Fiction
SettingEarly 19th-century Australia (New South Wales)


The main characters of “The Secret River” by Kate Grenville are:

  1. William Thornhill ➜ The main character, he’s a man who was once in trouble and then went to live in Australia.
  2. Sal Thornhill ➜ William’s wife, who goes to Australia with him.
  3. Smasher Sullivan ➜ A bad guy who causes problems for William and his family.
  4. Blackwood ➜ A friend of William who is an Aboriginal person and becomes important in the story.


The themes of “The Secret River” by Kate Grenville are:

  1. Taking Land ➜ The book talks about how people took land from others.
  2. People Fighting ➜ It shows how different groups of people fought with each other.
  3. Finding a Home ➜ It’s about finding a place to call home.
  4. Bad Things Happening ➜ The story has sad and bad things happening to characters.


The Secret River is about a man named William who gets in trouble and is sent to Australia a long time ago. He becomes free and tries to start a new life there with his family. But things get difficult when he wants to own land, and there are problems with the Aboriginal people who already live there. The book is about how they all struggle to live together in a new place.


William Thornhill is a 19th-century Englishman who, instead of receiving the death penalty for robbery, is exiled to Australia in Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel The Secret River. The colonization of Aboriginal lands by Europeans is a topic covered in the narrative. Grenville followed up The Secret River with a nonfiction book in 2006. She describes conducting the research for the first book in Searching for the Secret River, and how it was first intended to be a biographical piece about a personal ancestor named Solomon Wiseman.

William Thornhill was raised in the slums of London after being born into extreme poverty. He was found guilty of stealing wood in 1806 and given the death penalty. However, he and his family are transferred to New South Wales in Australia as opposed to being put to death. His first interaction with an Aboriginal person occurs on his first night at a Sydney convict community. Thornhill warns the man to “Be off!” after he suddenly appears out of nowhere and approaches him. The fundamental battle of the book is symbolically started when the native merely echoes his words back to him. The same territory is being occupied by two very distinct organizations. The Aboriginals are spiritually a part of the country and do not wish to leave, whereas the European criminals are not allowed to go.

In a flashback, Thornhill’s early years in London are depicted. He spent seven years as a waterman’s apprentice under Mr. Middleton, helping to ferry the affluent across the Thames. He eventually develops a dislike for the pretentious attitudes of the wealthy and works hard to improve his situation in life. Sal, the daughter of Middleton, and Thornhill fall in love as he draws closer to finishing his apprenticeship; they get married the day after he is released. Using a boat that his old master gave him as a wedding gift, he continues to work the river. 

Although he is relieved to have left his prior poverty behind, this sense of security does not persist for very long. He loses his job as the river freezes over during a prolonged cold period. After swiftly running out of funds, Middleton and his wife both passed away from disease. William and Sal are forced into poverty and surrender to the government their family house and all of their boats. William works for a different master, but he is not paid enough to support himself, so he starts stealing. Sal can get the sentence reduced to deportation after William receives a death sentence for attempting to steal wood, and they are then transferred to Australia. They are accompanied by their son Willie and a second kid, Dick, who was born while they were traveling.

They can acclimate to life in the prison community, where William is once more employed as a waterman. Sal sets up a bar inside their hut when he successfully steals a few tiny amounts of rum from the several barrels moving through the harbor. William is permitted to leave the colony after a year. William is offered a position working for Thomas Blackwood, whom he had known during his time in London, rather than the new clerk Mr. King, whose attitude toward his job gives him the impression that his rum skimming would be discovered. Blackwood manages trade between Sydney and communities around the Hawkesbury River using a boat.

While laboring by the river, William notices a piece of land that he makes a promise to one day claim and utilizes to improve his family’s quality of life. Thornhill’s Point is the name he gives to the area. William also meets Smasher Sullivan, a settler who despises and mistreats any Australian natives he comes across. Blackwood despises Smasher and his prejudice since he appreciates native people and has always worked to live in peace with them. William borrows money from Mr. King & buys Blackwood’s yacht when he retires. He continues to manage the trade route with the help of his son Willie, and things become better financially. Sal is uninterested when he tells her about his plans to move to Thornhill’s Point, but she agrees to the arrangement for five years in the hopes of ultimately earning enough money to escape the wilds of Thornhill’s Point for a higher level of living.

At Thornhill’s Point, the family has problems with the Aboriginal people. Tensions rise as a result of the indigenous stealing William’s corn field since they do not acknowledge his claim to the property. Several Aboriginal people are harmed in the ensuing conflict. Sal requests that the family leave Thornhill’s Point out of concern for her boys’ safety. William does not want to give up on the goal he has fought so hard to achieve. William and Sal notice smoke at Saggity’s encampment down the river as they continue to debate whether to stay or go. 

Sal starts packing as William rushes to aid Saggity. William rescues Saggity after seeing him injured by Aboriginals, but Saggity perishes. Following this incident, there is a great deal of violence as the settlers battle to expel the native people from the region. William is divided since he recognizes the natives’ point of view, but he nonetheless supports the fight against them because Sal can only stay at Thornhill’s Point if they are eliminated.

The Aborigines abandoned the region and ceased to pose a danger to the settlers along the Hawkesbury after a period of brutal massacre. William rises to become a wealthy landowner and a member of the elite. William is pleased with his new position, but he also feels guilty about what he did and what happened as a result.

About the Author-Kate Grenville

NameKate Grenville
Birth DateOctober 14, 1950
BirthplaceSydney, Australia
Education– Bachelor of Arts in Literature from the University of Sydney
Famous Works-The Secret River (2005)
-The Lieutenant (2008)
-Sarah Thornhill (2011)
-Joan Makes History (1988) |
Literary GenreHistorical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

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