As a boy, Daniel Rooke was always an outsider. Ridiculed in school and misunderstood by his parents, Daniel could only hope, against all the evidence, that he would one day find his place in life. When he joins the marines and travels to New South Wales as a lieutenant on the First Fleet, Daniel finally sees his chance for a new beginning.

As his countrymen struggle to control their cargo of convicts and communicate with those who already inhabit the land, Daniel constructs an observatory to chart the stars and begin the scientific work he prays will make him famous. But the place where they have landed will prove far more revelatory than the night sky.

Out on his isolated point, Daniel comes to intimately know the local Aborigines and forges a remarkable connection with one young girl, Tagaran, that will forever change the course of his life. As the strained coexistence between the Englishmen and the native tribes collapses into violence, Daniel is forced to decide between dedication to his work, allegiance to his country, and his protective devotion to Tagaran and her people.

Thoughts

The Lieutenant is the second part of the Thornhill series which began with The Secret River, however it it is important to realise the books are linked by themes rather than characters. The story of Daniel Rooke was inspired by the notebooks of William Dawes (1762–1836) who joined the British marines and travelled to New South Wales as part of the First Fleet. A keen astronomer, Dawes was asked to record his observations on the journey and to establish an observatory on what would eventually be called Dawes Point.

Spending most of this time away from the rest of his unit, Dawes slowly developed a friendship with the native Eora people and learned their language with the help of a young girl. However, as relations between the natives and the British deteriorate into violence, Dawes was ordered to take part in a punitive expedition in retaliation for an attack by the Aborigines but he refused and was forced to return to England. While Dawes never got the opportunity to return to Australia, he became a staunch abolitionist and worked tirelessly against the slave trade in Antigua.

The character of Daniel Rooke is heavily based on William Dawes and most of the things that happen to him in New South Wales are the same events as experienced by Dawes. As a misfit, Daniel is delighted when he is allowed to stay alone at his new observatory and his initial focus is on mapping the heavens. As time goes on, Daniel starts to receive tentative visits from the local Eora people who are curious about him but he is frustrated by his inability to communicate with them. Luckily for Daniel, one of the young native girls recognises his clumsy attempts to learn their language and reciprocates.

While Dawes’ story is an important one, it doesn’t necessarily make for exciting reading and Grenville remains faithful to the true sequence of events. Nevertheless, she manages to make Daniel a compassionate character who is initially more concerned with his love for astronomy and mathematics. When the Eora begin visiting him, Daniel’s attentions are drawn away from the heavens to the more earthly and the socially awkward young man soon becomes the foremost authority on the Eora dialect. Daniel chooses to keep his work with the indigenous people a secret from his superiors because he instinctively knows they will ruin everything he has built. The conflict in Daniel continues to grow as relations between the settlers and the indigenous people deteriorate to the point of violence. Daniel is then forced to take a stand against the treatment of the natives and the consequences mean he is sent back to England never to return.

Grenville’s use of language is just as beautiful in this book as the first one and you really get a sense of the harsh and unforgiving nature of an unsettled Australia. The pace is very slow but worth it.