Salt Creek and The Secret River

Let’s talk about confronting books.

Last month I read Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar and saw the stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.  Both deal with English settlers in Australia and the treatment of Aboriginal people (and their land).  They were different experiences – the play more visceral, the book more reflective – but with many parallels.

The Secret River was an incredible production, staged in Anstey Hill Quarry, 20 minutes’ drive from the centre of Adelaide, as part of the Adelaide Festival.

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Pre- theatre drinks at The Secret River with my sister Madeleine

A young English family, the Thornhills, try to make a new life in Australia, too poor to travel back home.  They settle on the Hawkesbury River after hearing that land is ‘available’ there.  This land is inhabited by Aboriginal people, who are suspicious and baffled by the strangers.  Their clothes, English habits and attempts to tame the land are almost comical and this effect – how foreign Australia seemed to the English – is powerfully brought to life in the quarry setting.

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Nathaniel Dean and Ningali Lawford-Wolf, The Secret River.  Photo credit: Sydney Theatre Company

Each hopes the other group will move on.  The English family is sympathetically portrayed but there are some cruel and unhinged characters down the river.  On the other hand, we see the Aboriginal families hunting, at home on the land, and the children playing together with humour and innocence.

Tension builds as the two groups cannot communicate with each other or coexist.  The menace of the bullies downriver creates a dark undertone.

During the first half I found myself resisting the story.  I knew how it ended (shamefully for white Australians) and did not want to relive it.  But the climax was moving and powerful.  The effects used to show the violence, mixed with the chilling “London Bridge is Falling Down”, made for superb theatre: it showed in one scene a whole history of imperialism and bloodshed.

The narrator, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, said something at the end about ‘witnessing’ what happened, lest it be forgotten. She was speaking about a character in the play, but I took it as an answer to my question: why watch uncomfortable theatre?  Because we need to be witnesses to history.

Salt Creek tells the story of English settlers taking land on the Coorong, South Australia.  The setting, 129 miles from Adelaide, is isolated even today and was at the end of the earth then.  They try to cling to their old social mores and rules but the father’s ventures (cattle, then sheep) fail.  Worse, they ruin the plants and waterholes used by the Aboriginal custodians of the land for thousands of years.  Civil life disintegrates.

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Again we see the desire by the wife to return to England or at least to the city, and the husband dreaming of fortunes to be made.  We follow the story through Hester, their daughter, who is trapped there by circumstance.  Slowly they come unstuck and, despite good intentions, cannot live with the Aboriginal inhabitants.

I found this slow to start, but ended up enjoying it.  The thoughtful writing, immersion in the desolate landscape and determination of Hester kept me reading.  The isolation, and the cruelty of the settlers depressed me – the father in particular was extremely unlikeable.  But the journey of Hester is interesting and her conscience about what happened to the Aboriginal people (many died or became ill from imported diseases, their children removed and sent to missions, sacred sites ruined) is something to reflect on.  It was not her fault exactly but there is a sense of wrongdoing.

I read Salt Creek as part of the Read Harder challenge: a book set within 100 miles of your location (near enough, I hope!).  We spend our summers at Goolwa Beach, where the Coorong starts, so the location did resonate with me.  Goolwa was famously the setting for Storm Boy, a classic book by Colin Thiele and 1976 movie (now being remade).

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Goolwa Beach

What are your favourite confronting books?