I have often wondered how our ancestors lived in big houses and joint families. Where family meant everything. The Thorn Birds makes us nostalgic, taking us back to our past, to that big house owned by our ancestors, surrounded by vast lands, where it was difficult to spot the horizon. The place where our parents grew up together, with such close proximity that they knew the innermost strengths and weaknesses of each other, without actually confiding with each other. The place where they have faced severe hardships, the floods, the storms, the heat, the floods, and the dust; have witnessed helplessly the death of a sibling, and grieved the loss of elderly, because of lack of proper medical facilities. But despite forging such strong bonds, there are frequent occurrences when one child is the parent’s favorite and the others find themselves neglected.
As the children grow up and migrate to faraway cities for better opportunities, the foundation sometimes crumbles. They drift apart like birds that fly away from their mother’s nest in different directions, forgetting that at one point in time, they have been through the toughest trials of life together. They shield their struggles and emotional needs from the rest of the family, they forget their past, and unfortunately, the mother who begot them also forgets them, sooner or later. And in the end, everyone has to tend for themselves, as they have no one to turn to, in their struggle.
They stumble and make costly mistakes primarily because of a lack of proper guidance and companionship. Their flaws cost them their future and steers their life onto rough tides.
They bear the burden of their mistakes and end up paying a heavy price for the rest of their lives. And yet they never complain, they believe that this is the plan chalked out by the almighty and go about their day-to-day life believing that everything is alright. This, in a nutshell, summarizes The Thorn Birds.
Three generations of torment
An epic saga filled with ebbs and flows of relationships and fortune, The Thorn Birds follows the struggle of three generations of an Australian family, The Clearys. A big family, the father Paddy Cleary, the mother Fee Cleary, their seven sons, and one daughter, Meggie, all work relentlessly to make the ends meet.
Despite being the only daughter of the household, Meggie’s emotional needs are surprisingly not attended to and on the contrary, deliberately neglected, especially by her mother. Meggie is sent to school and punished brutally by the nuns for being straightforward in expressing her opinions. The first close friendship which she carefully builds is ruthlessly broken by her parents only because she has got lice from her friend’s hair. Her doll is carelessly ripped apart by her playful brothers because they find it interesting. Each and every hopeful emotion of Meggie is mercilessly thwarted by her parents and her brothers, except the oldest, Frank.
The Clearys, after suffering severe hardships in New Zealand, are invited to Drogheda, the vast homestead in Australia, by their closest relative, Mary Carlson. They go to Drogheda in the hope of a better future, and Drogheda does prove to be a turning point in their life and uplifts their status in society, but at the same time, demands heavy sacrifices.
So, a shy and ignored Meggie finds herself in the company of a kind, handsome young priest, Ralph de Bricassart who is nearly eighteen years older than her. Ralph takes pity on this beautiful girl who is abandoned by her own mother and Meggie finds comfort in the priest’s kindness and concern, a privilege that was denied to her by her own family.
As Meggie grows into a beautiful maiden, the equation between her and the priest changes. They find themselves mutually attracted to each other. Thus, begins the ill-fated, forbidden love between the young girl and the ambitious priest, who has vowed himself to the church and aims to reach the highest ranks in priesthood, the Vatican. Knowing their love is forbidden, they try to resist each other. Meggie marries another man, leaves Drogheda and bears him a girl child. Ralph also moves to Vatican to pursue his dreams.
But their love is bound to consummate, sooner or later and Meggie gives birth to a male child. Throughout her life, Meggie is put under several trials, as a daughter, lover, wife, and mother. In each role she dons, she loses miserably. She suffers alone with her reckless, narcissistic husband in sugar cane fields. Neglected by him, she works as a maid to tend to herself and her children.
She falls in love with a man whose love is unattainable and questions the rules of the church and God. Finally, after facing her battles all alone and content with her children, she settles to her fate in Drogheda. But when the little hatchlings grow up and want to fly far away from Drogheda, far, from their mother’s nest, she sets them free to explore into the big wide world.
But, unaware of her own self, Meggie does not realize that her children are struggling alone to make a life for themselves. And they needed her when they are making crucial decisions in their lives. Meggie, like Fee, fails to see those thin delicate emotional threads which are dangling right in front of her eyes, waiting to be tied. She finds comfort in the companionship of her mother and her old friend, in a delusion that her children are strong enough to take care of themselves.
By the time she realizes the truth, it is too late.
On the other hand, Ralph climbs up the ladder in the Vatican very quickly and becomes a very influential figure. Little does he know about the secret Meggie hid from him for avenging her unrequited love. Though always in love with Meggie, he never relents to her till a bitter truth pulls him down from his successful uphill climb.
Fee, stern and strong, is oblivious to the people who love her and yearn for her attention. She realizes her mistake when fate takes them away from her, but she goes on living her life, accepting her losses, the same way she accepts her mistakes.
The Cleary brothers are married to the Drogheda farms and dedicate their lives to the work in Drogheda. Without Fee’s parental guidance, they all grow old in age but still innocent like children at heart.
Meggie’s children grow up, and embrace contrasting lifestyles. Her son, resplendent, innocent and pure, and her daughter, a brat and a loud-mouthed rebel. Left alone to choose their paths, they also, stumble, make mistakes and carry on with their lives.
So, in summary, despite being such a big family, each one of the Clearys and Ralph fights their own battle, makes mistakes, and pays a heavy price. Like Thornbirds, they carry thorns in their chest, despite knowing that it is hurting them. But they keep going on, till the very end, not blaming anything or anyone taking responsibility for their own actions.
Lives of women
The narration is deep and lyrical and flows like poetry. There is not one but many heartbreaking instances right from the beginning of the book which makes us very sad. Be it the neglected treatment of Meggie by her mother, the unrequited love of Meggie and Ralph, or the grief of the old parents, the book never fails to move us to tears. The author delves deep and traverses through a wide range of human emotions, and makes us swim in those currents effortlessly.
As the book progresses, we get emotionally involved with the characters in the book. My heart went out for Meggie and bled for Dane. I cried foul with Fee and Ralph but eventually forgave them. I smiled every time the Cleary brothers came together to celebrate little occasions of their niece and nephew and wanted to rebuke Justine (Meggie’s daughter), every time, she goes tangential to the logical reasoning, thanks to her inner demons.
The book is also heavily female-oriented. Considering that it is written in 1977, the family values are largely old-fashioned, but the women surprisingly have a modern outlook. Fee is strong and rigid, Meggie fiercely independent, and Justine a born rebel. It is unfortunate that none tries to come to the rescue of the other till things hit rock bottom.
But the men, on the other hand, are heavily backward in their outlook. None of them seem to treat women on par or consider them a priority. Despite having such a large family, Paddy Cleary seems to think that the housework has to be done by women alone and rebukes his son Frank for trying to help an exasperated Fee in household work. Being strictly Catholic, birth control is completely out of question and so Fee becomes more of a machine to produce kids than a nurturing mother, which in essence drains all emotions out of her and germinates the catastrophe which affects three generations.
Ralph undermines his love for Meggie for his ambition, the Vatican. When the opportunity presents itself, he grabs both his hands and snatches it, knowing at the back of his mind that he is giving away Meggie for good. He does love Meggie wholeheartedly, but for some reason, she is never a priority. That germinates the vengeful streak in Meggie, which proves to be tragic to both him and her.
Meggie’s husband is a straightforward brat. He marries her for money, she marries him to escape Ralph. He treats her more like a burden and a commodity than a life partner. He is always concerned about saving money and getting rich and keeps pushing Meggie to the least of his priorities.
Some of these characters made me sick and cry out foul. But then, we also have seen people with such attitudes towards women at closer proximity back in our own families in our previous generations. Many of us have seen our grandmothers and even our mothers suffer through this discrimination.
This book is a baseline to measure the extent to which our society has evolved in the upliftment of the status of women through many years. It is a lesson to be learned, that despite having good old-fashioned traditional values if we do not attend to the emotional need of our near and dear, neglect them or belittle them, things are bound to go south.
A book for ages
This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Drogheda is enchanting and will forever be etched in my heart. Despite being an ill-fated, forbidden love, the epic romance of Meggie and Ralph is so beautiful that it will be remembered and cherished forever. There is an American television mini-series adaptation based on this book, which is also quite well taken. I would strongly recommend this book, it enriches the reader with the values of human relationships and the losses we have to face if we neglect them. They say “science teaches us how to make things easy, literature teaches us about life. Both are equally important but to enjoy the adventures of Life, you need to learn both.” This book teaches us just that, about life.
Anantha is an IT Professional. Writing is her passion. She writes short stories, book reviews, movie reviews, small stories for children, and play scripts for the theater. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops for children.