I did it! I finally read The Thorn Birds! Although I can’t say this book has been on my TBR list for a long time, I’ve often wondered about this story for decades.
When the book and TV mini-series were smash hits in the US I was about eleven or twelve. All I knew was that it was a love story between a priest and a women. I was raised Lutheran but the entire family beyond my Mom, sister, and me were Catholic, so I understood the appeal of the forbidden nature of the story, but as a tomboy I had zero interest in romance.
The copy I read belongs to my Mom’s friend Marge’s sister Pat who inscribed the date “4/78” under her name on the inside page. I have no idea how the book came to be on my shelves. Pat and I now live in different parts of the country but I think it’s high time I get Pat’s book back to her. (Speaking of Pat, I distinctly remember it was her copy of Stephen King’s The Stand that I read way back when.)
Does The Thorn Birds need much of an introduction? In addition to being a story of forbidden love, it is also a sweeping chronicle of three generations of the Cleary family’s trials and tribulations and the changes Australia went through from approximately 1915-1969. If you like historical sweeping family sagas you’ll want to read it.
As you can see in the picture to the right, I flagged a lot of passages. Some of the flagged passages have to do with Father Ralph’s beauty and sexuality (or speculation about it). For example, in an early scene Mary Carson, the first matriarch of Drogheda, ponders, “Curious, how many priests were handsome as Adonis, had the sexual magnetism of Don Juan. Did they espouse celibacy as a refuge from the consequences?” (57). In another scene Ralph asks Mary Carson why she doesn’t like Meggie, her young niece whose come to live at the station (ranch). His reply to her response dates the novel a bit: “Do you think I tamper with children? I am, after all, a priest!” (115). He says this without a trace of irony or sarcasm, which wouldn’t pass muster if written today.
Another topic I flagged was the mention of books and reading. The Cleary family are big readers and made a weekly trip to the library when they still lived in New Zealand. Reading is referred to or depicted throughout the novel although a bit less towards the end. One such passage I flagged was about Jims and Patsy at boarding school, “Sharing the family passion for reading didn’t endear Riverview to them at all; a book could be carried in a saddlebag or a jacket pocket and read with far more pleasure in the noonday shade of a wilga than in a Jesuit classroom” (232). Young Meggie goes through hell at the hands of a vicious nun at her Catholic school in New Zealand at the beginning of the story, so Catholic education does not get a positive spin in this story. And I was surprised by the Jesuits being presented as down on reading. I went to a Jesuit University and encountered only a wide open love for seeking knowledge through books, but perhaps its the age of the kids that’s a factor here. Or novels for pleasure. Or is it a national thing? Was Catholic education even more brutal in Australia and New Zealand than the stories I hear from friends and family that experienced it in the US?
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And then I also flagged cultural things, stuff that seems like it must be based on a true story that the author picked up somewhere, like the girl whose father “locked her in the shearer’s barracks for a week with a fly-blown carcass” to break her into marrying the man of his choosing (249). That sounds like it could come right out of a nineteenth century memoir set in Nebraska. Or details about how when the Cleary boys are building a new stock man’s house they put a tin plate with the edges folded down at the top of each pile to keep termites from the house proper. The termites would eat the poles, but the house would be saved. It’s easier to occasionally replace the piles on which the house rested than an entire home (263). I also liked historical tid-bits like how when the eldest son Frank wants to join the army to fight in WWI his father asks if he’s not heard the Boer War chaps talking about their awful experience. Then after WW2, “the men who had actually been in the thick of battle never opened their mouths about it, refused to join the ex-soldiers’ clubs and leagues, wanted nothing to do with institutions perpetuating the memory of war” (373).
Some of the flags are for less flattering but presumably accurate representations of social attitudes towards minorites such as when a guy tells Jims and Patsy they look like “poofters” for lying against one another at their fighting post in North Africa during WW2, or how the Japanese are described as “Pint-sized yellow men who all seemed to wear glasses and have buck teeth” (385). As a sign of the changing times in the 1960s, lesbians are living openly in Sydney and mentioned in the space of one whole paragraph. In that short space they are portrayed as unstable, uncommitted partners, who pop pills and are suicidal drama queens. Justine’s final pronouncement is that, “Men were bad enough, but at least they had the spice of intrinsic difference” (435). Later, when a friend asks Justine if Dane is a poof she says “the day he looks at Sweet William, our screaming juvenile, I’ll cut his throat and Sweet William’s, too” (454). Unless I missed something, Aborigines are mentioned only once and painted in an unflattering light: “Only the handful of half-caste aborigines who lived in Gilly’s shanty section aped the cowboys of the American West, in high-heeled fancy boots and ten-gallon Stetsons. To a black-soil plainsman such gear was a useless affectation, a part of a different culture. A man couldn’t walk through the scrub in high-heeled boots, and a man often had to walk through the scrub. And a ten-gallon Stetson was far too hot and heavy” (349). The implication is that the half-breeds don’t work very hard and don’t even dress the part appropriately.
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I didn’t particularly like Justine. In addition to her homophobia she’s also described as having “dark white,” “inhuman” eyes, no conscience, and didn’t laugh as a young child, all of which sounds like she could morph into a serial killer. However, I did appreciate that she writes in a letter to Rainer that she thought Ralph was “too smarmy for words” (533). I nodded my head in agreement with her on that one.
And speaking of Rainer, the frightened young German soldier Ralph finds praying in the Vatican in 1943, the only qualm I had with the historical accuracy of the book is when McCullough writes that at the age of sixteen Rainer was, “too young to have been indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth in its leisurely prewar days” (474). On the contrary, he was absolutely the right age to have been indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth. That’s not to say he would have swallowed the propaganda, but Rainer grew up while the Hitler Youth was at its height. And “leisurely prewar days” made me snort with derision. I was believing everything in the story hook, line, and sinker until I read that sentence about Rainer. But I imagine within the context of the story that McCullough wanted to ensure that readers would think Rainer was a “good German.”
Overall, I enjoyed The Thorn Birds and am happy to have read it. The last two hundred pages or so were a bit of a slog to get through mainly because the last third of the book is about Justine and Dane, characters I didn’t care about as much as I had for Meggie and Ralph or Fee before them. But looking back I have to say I like thinking about that part of the book. Weird how that happens.
What’s your experience with The Thorn Birds? Have you read the book? Seen the TV series? Remember the adults going crazy about it?