Sunday, 7 November 2010

Family History with a Punch


The Secret River is Kate Grenville’s creative take on the life of her great-great-grandfather after his transportation to Australia in the early 1800s, and Searching for the Secret River is a memoir of her family history research project which produced her prize winning novel. 

For generations Australians studiously ignored the realities of the early years of white occupation in this country.

Our grandparents refused to speak about just what happened when the British arrived here in the late 18th century with ship loads of soldiers and convicts, and not-so-gradually took this land as their own.

The Aborigines, occupants for many thousands of years, were not even mentioned in the history texts when I went to school.

The Secret River

This compelling book by Kate Grenville would have spawned a furore if she had written it years ago.

Today the Aboriginal culture still strives to survive, despite gradual realisations among those in mainstream society.

The author’s imagination (guided by excellent research) follows the re-named protagonist as he gains a pardon, is given land and establishes a new life for his wife and family, becoming wealthy and influential in the new colony.

But  all of this does come at great cost.
Her clever writing nudges Australians to confront the issue of their nation's early turbulent years.  She encourages us to think about how the changeover from black to white ownership may have occurred. She does this subtly and with some apparent concern for the psychological welfare of those who take up her invitation.

Kate Grenville
Kate Grenville (Image: ABC)

For instance, although born as the result of research into her own family, The Secret River does not presume to pass sentence.  Grenville simply uses historical documents to sketch the bare bones of the picture while she paints in further details from her imagination, leaving any decisions to the reader.

My bloggy mates will note that I haven’t posted for a while, what with moving house and renovating, a spot of illness or two, but here I am again.

I give credit (or blame) to Kate Grenville for jerking me out of my blogging lethargy. The Secret River and its companion volume Searching for the Secret River did the trick.

After it was written in 2005, The Secret River won a swag of awards including the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and a short listing in the Man Booker of 2006.

A few months later Kate followed her successful novel with Searching for the Secret River, a memoir describing her research.  It is an invaluable aid to any family historian, as well as a darned good read.

Searching for the Secret River

These two books have me poring again through my own family history which had lain ignored for many months.

They reminded me that I had walked a vaguely similar path to our Kate when I wrote a story based loosely on research into the background of some of my own family.  See:

Creative writing of fiction is a wonderful tool which allows the writer to safely explore difficult subjects.  It can also bring to the light of day previously ignored events, and encourage scrutiny in a useful context.
Have you looked at your personal family history with open eyes?
Tell me in a comment …

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Cheers June