Thorn Birds, The

Colleen McCullough
“Beautiful….Compelling entertainment.”—New York Times“A heart-rending epic…truly marvelous.”—Chicago TribuneOne of the most beloved novels of all time, The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough’s sweeping family saga of dreams, titanic struggles, dark passions, and forbidden love in the Australian Outback, returns to enthrall a new generation.


Reviewed: 2017-02-08
Reviewed: 2016-06-24
I really enjoy epic stories and sagas, big sweeping stories that enmesh the reader in the characters and their lives, and make the reader more than just a bystander watching the action, but a sort of participant. We want things to go a certain way, we want things to go well, because we care about the characters, and we have invested our hopes in them.

Colleen McCullough has an almost magical skill in making her characters real and believable and true. That is what I love most about reading, and why I love certain authors above others. Where another author's character may be interesting and dynamic and exciting, they are still just a character. McCullough, and a few other authors, has the ability to make her characters, fictional though they may be, reach out of the pages and touch us. The characters she creates no longer feel like words on a page; they follow me around, pry their way into my dreams, make me wonder how they are spending their days when I'm not able to read about them. I love when I can just plunge into a book and live in it... To that end, McCullough even seemed to make Australia itself a living, breathing character. It's described beautifully, and is as unpredictable as any human character she's introduced here.

This is the third McCullough book that I've read, and I feel like she must have spent an inordinate amount of her life just observing life and people. She brings us the stories of the people she creates, but, even though we're following an omniscient narrator, we can only see, feel and hear so much of our subject's lives. We can only reach so far into their hearts for the mysteries that elude us, because, like real people, they don't have open-book hearts and minds. But it feels like we're able to see into their souls, because McCullough understands humanity itself, and presents us with general truths that feel like intimate secrets.

This story centers around the Cleary family and what comes to be their farm Drogheda. We meet Meggie Cleary as a 4 year old birthday girl, and then follow her through six decades of life, love and loss.

Her family is a strange, introverted male-centric one. Meggie is the only girl in a rather large clan of brothers: Frank, Bob, Jack, Hughie, Stuart, Hal, James and Patrick. She learns early to be self-reliant, because in her family there is not a lot of use for girls. Her mother is very closed-mouthed, very closed-off, and works her fingers to the bone to keep the household running, because her father has very distinct ideas about the differences between the sexes - housework and child-rearing is woman's domain only, and farming and work is man's domain only. The two are not to mix or cross paths. This is not to say that Paddy Cleary was a bad or harsh man, because he was not, but he just had certain ideas of how life is, and his word was law as the Man of the House.

Their lives ease somewhat after moving to Australia, but with the move comes a new set of struggles. Meggie meets and loves Father Ralph, the Catholic priest in the area. At ten, it's an innocent, adoring love, which provides her with attention that she's neglected in other areas of her life. Meggie is never taught about puberty, or where babies come from, or many other things that girls need to know. She's generally kept in the back hall closet of life. Not maliciously, but because in the Cleary family, a daughter has to fend for herself. Boys are the goal, because boys are the workers, the backbone of the family, and the genes that allow the name and lineage to be carried on. Because of Meggie's neglect, Father Ralph has the responsibility of teaching her the things that a mother should. As she grows up, the innocent love she holds for Father Ralph turns into more, and causes both parties to struggle, because what we want most is often what is the most forbidden.

Father Ralph is probably my favorite character here. I am not Catholic, and a lot of the Catholic faith is a mystery to me. But his struggles of conscience and faith, which force him to choose between the love he feels and the vows he made, in my mind make him the most interesting character of them all. I think that probably most priests have this crisis at some point in their lives... do they regret their decision to forfeit their manhood for the priesthood? Are they strong enough to resist temptation? I'm glad that we got to see things here from both sides - not only Father Ralph's struggle, but Meggie's struggles as well.

There was a lot in this book that reminded me of other classic literature. Father Ralph's struggles and Meggie's desire for him brought to mind Hester and Rev. Dimmesdale from "The Scarlet Letter". Justine, Meggie's daughter with Luke O'Neill, reminded me quite a bit of Jo March from "Little Women" in her feminist, proud, ambitious and take no prisoners approach to life. But in both cases, the similarities are only surface level, because these characters are far less perfect, less romantic, and more real than those they bring to mind from other books.

There is more than a little heartbreak in this book and I will admit that I shed a few tears. But one thing that rather grated on my nerves was that I could always tell when tragedy was about to strike. It seemed that for every loss, there was a hopeful build-up so that the fall would be that much greater. I felt that it was obvious and I rolled my eyes more than once because of it. So that's why I've taken off a star for this book. But that being said, the depictions of the reactions to the losses were very real and honest. I just wish that the red herring ploy wasn't so obvious.

Anyway, I did truly enjoy this book, as I have enjoyed the other McCulloughs that I've read. I do plan on reading more of her books in the future, and would certainly recommend this one.
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@bookwoodbooks completed #thornbirdsthe... on 2014-08-10