The Thorn Birds - Colleen McCullough

The Thorn Birds is perhaps best known as a sweeping miniseries but of course it began as a giant novel set in Australia just as the country was forming. Actually, to go back a little, it began in New Zealand.

We begin with a tiny girl, Meggie, who is cruelly tormented by just about everything in life, and whose mother is shown to be a silent, zombie robot worker. OK, I exaggerate a bit. But what this entire book seems to be about is women who are beaten, used, abused, and who lose all meaning of life in the process. As the book is set in the early 1900s, a lot of the message seems to be "life REALLY sucked in these days for women - thank God that we do not live in these times. Appreciate what we have!!"

OK, back to the story. Meggie. Abused by her brothers. Abused REALLY nastily by her school. Falls into a childhood passion with a priest, Ralph de Bricassart. Giant turmoils result.

At issue is that Meggie's family is dragged from New Zealand, where grass is green, lambs are fluffy and hobbits abound, out to the dusty dry brown plains of Australia to seek a fortune. Meggie turns into a tomboy which I suppose compared to her work-24-hrs-a-day mother was a great choice for her. Meggie of course lusts after Ralph but can't have him. The whole priest thing and all. So instead she marries a Ralph Clone, at least as far as looks go. However, as most women learn early in life, looks are pretty meaningless in a relationship. What matters is what is inside, and Meggie has chosen poorly here. She is dragged off and used as a cash cow, and not much else. She puts up with this for quite a while - she must have inherited that doormatness from her mom. Finally she has enough, has an affair with Ralph, and heads off with the child.

Of course, she never TELLS Ralph that the kid is his, but she does send the child into the priesthood UNDER Ralph where just about every other human being notices the relationship. There is tragedy along the way - fires, unrest, disaster, and then finally when you think things might work out, they don't.

I see a lot of similarities between this and Gone with the Wind, the top selling book of all time. Both involve female heroines who try to do the very best with what they've got, and who are beaten down repeatedly for trying to be "more than what a woman should be". There is a ton of cool historical information here, tons of descriptions of what life was really like not too long ago. There is a TON of stuff that any modern female reader would read and think, "Good God, I'm glad I didn't live THEN". No matter how bad we think we have it in modern times, it was pretty amazingly evil just a short while ago.

That being said, Meggie really does put up with an incredible amount of ... sludge even given her environment. Even in those times, she would have had support if she spoke up. She chose to be silent. For plot reasons, the women seem to speak up when it's convenient for the plot - and to take the lumps for equally obvious plot reasons. Sure, I suppose this is a book after all :) The author wanted to keep us interested. Still, it got really annoying at times that she had a clear path out of a mess and almost deliberately chose the hardest path, to keep the story going.

So that being said, it really was a good read, and it did feel very informative, not just a "soap opera". There was a lot of interesting history being conveyed in the story. And even if it is exaggerated, it is important for us to remember just what it was like to be female not that long ago.

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