Monday, August 1, 2005

The Heart of Thornton Creek: 19th Century Australia

The Heart of Thornton Creek, by Bonnie Leon, begins a new series “The Queensland Chronicles.” Set in 1871, The Heart of Thornton Creek introduces 22-year-old Rebecca Williams, a proud and independent young woman living in Boston. She soon meets Daniel Thornton, an Australian visiting Boston to take care of some legal matters.

Forced by economic circumstances to marry Daniel, whom she likes but does not love, Rebecca travels with Daniel to his home in Queensland, Australia. Throughout the rest of the novel, Rebecca adjusts to a very different life in the desert lands of Australia, a world that is socially and technologically behind the times -- from her perspective. Yet the greater conflicts come not from the place and time, but from family relationships, including a dominant, overbearing father-in-law.

The story is primarily told from Rebecca’s perspective, with only occasional glimpses at Daniel’s thoughts. Accordingly, Rebecca is a well-defined character, strong and willful, and we experience Australia through her views: the beauty of some parts of Australia (and the barrenness of the Thornton property); her desire to help the black (aborigine) servants; her uncertainties as well as her rebellious attitude and behavior.

Unfortunately, the other characters are less developed, and some are unlikable. Her husband, Daniel, is weak-willed, firmly under his father’s control, a young man who has forgotten the biblical command to first “leave his father and mother” when he cleaves to his wife. Even when Rebecca pleads with him, even to consider their living in a separate house on the same property, Daniel refuses.

The father-in-law, Bertram, is well spoken of by all other family members as well as others in the community, with several even telling us the specific good things Bertram did for them. Yet we never see any demonstrations of that inner goodness so attested to. He instead is shown, through numerous scenes, to be harsh and unyielding, completely dominant over everyone else’s lives. A man who is truly good, underneath a “rough exterior,” would have those qualities somehow revealed during the story. Instead, even Bertram Thornton’s stated beliefs – in God’s sovereign election (a brief reference to Calvinist theology) – are twisted, to show a character that objects even to Rebecca’s teaching the aborigines how to read, and who furthermore says that the blacks are not in God’s plan of salvation.

That Daniel and Rebecca’s marriage declines from bad to worse is no surprise. Daniel never changes, and neither does Rebecca. It would be nice to see some character growth and development, such as Daniel growing to trust his wife and assert himself rather than remain a coward. Rebecca, too, makes choices -- in how she finally deals with Daniel -- that appear inconsistent and for no good reason, since Daniel clearly has not changed any. (Contrast the moral choices here with, say, the characters in Lawana Blackwell’s “Tales of London.”) Without such growth and maturity from either character, the book leaves us feeling that their relationship is still doomed, that nothing will change in the future.

Perhaps the next book in this series will introduce some growth and change, especially after the death of the dominant father-in-law. This series’ setting, too, is unusual, with a good glimpse of life in rural Australia, a setting not often seen in contemporary Christian historical fiction.

No comments: