The Thorn Birds
How do you review a 700-page book that many people have already read? I’m not really sure, but I’m going to give it a try. I’m very late in the game in reading The Thorn Birds, so if you haven’t read it yet (or watched the miniseries-next up for me) and are interested, I’ll try not to give too much away.
Wow, you can’t really tear through a book as big as this, but I have to say, I enjoyed every word of it and looked forward to reading it every chance I got. So in that sense, I did tear through it, but it took about two weeks. Reading this big book reminded me of how satisfying it is to really dig into a story and feel invested in the characters and the plot. So yay for big books and too bad we’re so afraid of them these days.
The Thorn Birds is mostly set in the outback of New South Wales, Australia, but includes storylines in North Queensland, New Zealand, Italy, and England. I very much enjoyed McCullough’s descriptions of the story’s main setting, the fictional area of Gillanbone and the family’s sheep farm called Drogheda. To give you perspective, this is not a small sheep farm. It encompasses a massive amount of land, two hundred and fifty thousand acres, and carries about one hundred and twenty-five thousand merino sheep, whose wool is the finest wool out there.
The story begins in 1915, spans fifty years and follows three generations of the Cleary family. Early in the story, Fee Cleary, whose great grandfather had come to New Zealand from England as a prisoner, and her husband, Paddy Cleary, an Irish immigrant, move from New Zealand to Australia where Paddy will have a job working on the farm owned by his older sister, Mary Carson. The Clearys have five sons and one daughter, Meggie, who becomes one of the main characters in the story. More children follow but Meggie is the only girl. And already at four years old, she’s remarkably pretty, with golden red hair and beautiful eyes.
Another central character is Father Ralph de Bricassart, a young priest who has been assigned to Gillanbone after insulting a bishop. When Father Ralph meets the Cleary family, he’s particularly drawn to young Meggie and, without understanding it, takes her under his wing.
Something important to note: Father Ralph is tall, dashing, athletic and a gorgeous human specimen. These features are also his private curse as he tries to keep his vocation as a priest in front of his earthly existence as a man, particularly as Meggie grows into a young woman. Meggie, too, has developed strong feelings for Ralph.
The Clearys endure many struggles during the Depression and World War II, and emerge from them changed. What’s curious is how none of the Cleary children feel a need to leave Drogheda, and those who do suffer greatly. It takes the third generation to branch out beyond the farm.
Building romantic tension and Ralph’s inner conflict make this story a hot page-turner and the storyline kept me interested from beginning to end. I won’t give the ending away, which surprised me, but when I think back, I see a few hints at the way things develop.
I highly recommend The Thorn Birds for readers who enjoy family sagas and stories about relationships and conflict. It’s worth the effort and in my mind, is one of those books that younger readers should take a look at, even though it was popular decades ago.
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