Summer School Book Three: The Lieutenant ~ Kate Grenville

The-LieutenantThe Lieutenant is the middle book in Kate Grenville’s trilogy about the foundation of colonial Australia.  Unlike the two books on either side of it, which follow the fortunes of the Thornhill family in the early years of the nineteenth century, this novel is set in the late seventeen hundreds and is based on the true life story of William Dawes, who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788.

Like Dawes, Grenville’s Daniel Rooke is a marine who has been assigned to this expedition on the strength of his abilities as an astronomer. Tasked with recording the expected reappearance of an historical  comet, Rooke is allowed to build himself an isolated hut to act as an observatory. This suits him very well as from childhood he has been something of a loner and he is ill at ease in the company of men who seem to take a delight in casual violence.  His isolation also means that he is able to begin to build a meaningful relationship with the Cadigal people, the original inhabitants of the Botany Bay area, and gradually to explore their language.

Given my background, inevitably it was the discussion of language that first attracted me to this novel when it was published in 2007. Using only the notes that Dawes made in his original journals, Grenville gradually strips away all the perceptions that we might have about how you learn to communicate with those who don’t speak your tongue: from the debunking of our common British strategy

the boy shouting at Rooke as though he would understand words said loudly enough

to Daniel’s more understandable attempts to systematically collect vocabulary and syntax.

[L]anguage was more than a list of words, more than a collection of fragments all jumbled together like a box of nuts and bolts. Language was a machine.  To make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts.

But learning someone’s language is far more than decoding the grammar and the lexis.

You [do] not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who speak it with you

and when Rooke strikes up a friendship with Tagaran, a Cadigal teenager, he begins to realise that to understand a language you have to also develop an understanding of the people themselves and of their culture.

What had passed between Tagaran and himself had gone far beyond vocabulary and grammatical forms.  It was at the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.

I was fascinated by how difficult some of the group found it to grasp this idea. After all, I’m the grammarian, the one who for years has made a study of the way the bits go together.  Perhaps it is because we are all of a certain age and were all taught languages in a very systematic way?  I don’t know.  I’m actually going to be discussing this book with a similar group later in the year and it will be interesting to see if there is the same reaction.

Other areas of discussion brought more unanimity, however.  Inevitably, Rooke’s friendship with the Cadigal comes into conflict with his duties as an officer in the marines.  As in The Last Runaway, the main character is forced to question whether or not he should stand by what he knows to be right or follow the path laid down by the community to which he belongs.  In Rooke’s case, this means deliberately disobeying an order and then having to take the consequences, which could extend as far as public execution.  We talked particularly about how he tries to find a way around his difficulties by telling himself that it will be all right to take part in the expedition to capture six of the Aboriginals because they will be too astute to be taken.  As Rooke himself eventually recognises, this is only playing with the truth and he has allowed self-interest to blind him.

If an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not, or how many clever steps you took to make sure it failed.  If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong.

Immigration was also raised again.  In this instance it came about through our discussion of Grenville’s involvement in the Reconciliation Walk when the people of Australia acknowledged the wrongs that have been done to the Aboriginals over the last two centuries.  Several members of the group had relatives who had emigrated to Australia and made it their homes, some two or three generations ago.  They echoed Grenville’s own words in respect of how those relatives feel:

[a]s “native-born” Australians, we’ve got nowhere else to call home.  If we don’t belong here, we don’t belong anywhere.

Grenville is in the same position as Mrs Reed in The Last Runaway.  As a fifth generation Australian she has lost her ties with the country from which her ancestors came.  The difference, of course, is that it is her own conscience that is suggesting that she has no right to be there rather than the voices of other immigrants insisting that she leave the country to them.  In the Chevalier novel the plight of the American Indians isn’t really up for discussion.

Finally, we felt we had to turn our attention to the way in which violence is justified by those who want power and can find no legitimate way of gaining it.  When Rooke goes on the expedition to capture six of the Cadigal people he discovers that he hasn’t been told the full story.  If six Aboriginals cannot be captured alive then they are to be slain and their heads brought back to the camp.

‘The heads, Rooke, were to be brought back in the bags provided.  Having been severed with the hatchet provided.  The governor’s argument was that it was necessary to act harshly once, in order not to have to act harshly again.  The punishment inflicted on a few would be an act of mercy to all the others.’

Just two days after the news broke of the murder of James Foley there was no way we could avoid acknowledging that our own history doesn’t bear close examination in this respect.  There is always an excuse, always a ‘good’ reason for acting in such an inhuman way, but no excuse, no reason can hide the fact that such behaviour is an act of barbarism, wherever and whenever it takes place.

This wasn’t, perhaps, the happiest note on which to end our Summer School but it did reflect the depth of thought that had gone on and the wide range of topics that we found ourselves engaged with.

12 thoughts on “Summer School Book Three: The Lieutenant ~ Kate Grenville

  1. I read this quite some years ago now but finished Sarah Thornhill only recently. Of the three, I think this is the most interesting novel with much to say about the way Australia was colonised. Have you read David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon? A beautifully written novel which has similar themes.

    1. William Dawes is also the central figure in Jane Roger’s interesting novel Promised Lands. He sounds a remarkable and fascinating man so I will look this book up.

      1. Jane Rogers used to have a residency at a University where a friend of mine taught, Ian, and I read a number of her books during that time, but not the one you mention. I must look it out before I work with this book again later in the year.

    2. Yes, this is definitely my favourite although I enjoyed the other two as well. I’ve heard of the Malouf but not read it. I shall have to seek it out before I lead another discussion on this in November.

  2. Sounds like it was a fairly weighty summer scool this year. The themes of immigration, emigration, colonisation, empire etc. all seem to be very much to the fore at the moment, as does racial conflict (as opposed to racism). On the whole it’s good to see literature picking up on the themes prevalent in our troubled world, but it can make for some very bleak reading.

    1. It certainly got us thinking and talking, FF, but that is one of the reasons that the Summer School has continued to be so successful, because it gives us the opportunity to look at literature in so much greater depth than our normal book groups allow.

  3. I love that line about how you do not learn a language without entering into a relationship with those who speak with you…so much in our lives is interconnected to people around us, whether we want it to, or not. Sometimes, I fancy myself an island. But then I know I’d be lonely, too, once in awhile.

    1. No man is an island, as Donne so rightly said. Like you, there are times when just being on my own is exactly what I want but as Rooke discovers we only really get to know ourselves when we see ourselves in the company of others.

  4. You absolutely have to read The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox, which is all about decoding an ancient language that is no longer spoken. It was fascinating! Of course, a lot of it won’t come as news to you, but the way the code was cracked, via deep understanding of grammar was just amazing. I am sure you and I have had a Kate Grenville conversation before, with me saying I didn’t get on with the novel I read, and you asking which one that was, and me being shamefully unable to recall! This one doesn’t ring any bells ,though, so it can’t be it. I should try her again.

    1. Do please, Litlove. This would be an excellent place to start because although it was seen as the second in the trilogy it does stand completely on its own. And I will look out a copy of the Fox, of which I’ve never heard, but you’re correct, it does sound right up my street.

    1. No, although they are meant to be a trilogy the second (i.e. this one) really does stand alone. However, if you read the other two you do need to read ‘The Secret River’ before ‘Sarah Thornhill’ to understand the situation being explored in the latter.

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