The Secret River is a story about the life of William Thornhill, chronicled from his childhood in poverty to his eventual transportation to the Australian penal colonies for theft of some wood. His life in Australia is the main focus of the book, but it is impossible to talk about without the context of his life in London. William learns very early on that life is hard and that stealing is very often the only way he will eat. His family is below the breadline and William is usually hungry and always cold. He grows up and does begin to make a decent life for himself as a lighterman on the Thames, and is able to provide a reasonable life for his wife and infant son.
Due to circumstances beyond his control, his life spirals downhill fast, which is when he reverts to the life that has always been there, although buried for a while, and eventually gets caught and sentenced to hang. Thanks to the efforts of Sal, his wife, this is commuted to transportation to the Penal colonies in Australia.
In Australia, once over the initial shock of the circumstances they find themselves in, they make a good life for themselves in fledgling Sydney, steadily increase their family, and eventually William gains his freedom. This is the point at which he decides he is going to claim land for himself on the Hawkesbury river, and try and become something he could never become in London. Settling on a piece of land, he moves his family up there but soon comes into contact with the native Australians, and start the battle over land with them that we ultimately know the outcome of.
When settled on The Hawkesbury, the family are surrounded not only by the natives, but also a selection of other white settlers, all who seem to have different attitudes to dealing with what they term Blacks, or Savages. Some are excessively violent towards them, some are almost accepting of their presence, and some even accept them enough to make families with them. But these characters are on the periphery of the story. The main focus is on the way William deals with the decisions and choices he has to make and how this reflects on his future life.
I thought the novel showed how the white settlers and the natives clashed, mainly through ignorance and racism on the settlers part, and by a total inability to communicate on all parts. William is portrayed as a sympathetic character, although he is fully complicit in the events at the climax of the story. It's through William that we see the moral dilemma of attempting to exterminate these people, and also how although he gets what he wants, it's bittersweet and tinged with sadness.
I actually thought the most shocking part of this book wasn't the attitude and brutality of the ex-convicts towards the native Australians, but the government sanctioned violence. It's essentially a story about property and territory, and from the top down, the white settlers believed they had a right to this land, whatever the cost. Even more shocking, because although this is a story, we all know similar events to those portrayed here did occur!