Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds is a romance novel. An epic sweeping multi-generational saga, encompassing vast sweeping portions of a vividly described continent, plus it centers on a Forbidden Stolen Love…but it’s a romance novel at heart, chock-full of the inevitable fate(s) that tragedy calls down upon the erring participants, and the price we pay for sin.
The book begins in 1914, with the Cleary family scraping a living in New Zealand. Paddy Cleary works for other farmers, shearing sheep and milking dairy cattle, while his wife treads the endless circle of housewife’s work in pre-World War I era domestic technology, or rather lack of it. Paddy’s older sister Mary, a wealthy landowner in Australia, invites him to come work for her; they do come, preferring a steady place with family to independent poverty scratching a living with odd jobs in New Zealand. The local priest, Ralph de Bricassart, takes them under his wing, the daughter Meggie in particular. As she grows, Meggie develops an unrequited love for de Bricassart, not understanding that Catholic priests cannot form the relationship she wants of him1. In the middle, she gets her wish, and, as with all good tragic stories, in the end she loses everything as the result of her transgressions. The book’s full of emotional rollercoaster goodies: as one example, when Mary dies, she draws up a will deeding all her substantial property to the Church to be administered by [drumroll please] de Bricassart while ensuring that Paddy Cleary and his family will always have a home on Drogheda as long as they desire it, but ensures that only de Bricassart knows of the later will so disposing of her property–the previous will leaving everything to Paddy is held by Mary’s lawyer. Should Ralph destroy the will? Yes, of course. Does he? No, of course he doesn’t. Who would! Paddy stays on as a stockman, along with his sons, even after the death of his sister opens the possibility of his inheriting Drogheda, should he choose to contest the will.
The main gist of the book, however, is the illicit love affair between Meggie and Father Ralph, and ultimately whether human relationships or Drogheda will prove stronger. When it came out, the idea of a priest breaking his vow of chastity repeatedly with his beloved lady may have been more shocking that it is these days. It’s a little difficult to read the book now, compared to when it was written, after priests’…er…misbehavior with their juvenile parishioners has hit and continues to hit the headlines with some regularity. The idea that a priest could be in any way romantically involved with any of those under his spiritual guidance is an uncomfortable reminder that not all priests are the upright moral guides we’d like to think they were. That said, I’ll give McCullough the benefit of the doubt and assume that Father Ralph’s feelings for the child Meggie were only those of parental love and protection.
As with Gone with the Wind, the land is as much a character as any of the living breathing humans, but those human characters start to blend together somewhat; frankly, I have trouble distinguishing between Fee’s younger sons as they age, and Justine’s reactions to her uncles do emphasize this generic nature.
Gone with the Wind is probably still the gold standard for epic romance sagas about a bygone era; The Thorn Birds can’t possibly match that level of wringing emotion, but it’s a decent read nevertheless. Just don’t think too hard about either book; they can’t stand substantial literary analysis and criticism…but then they weren’t supposed to be that kind of book. Just read them, enjoy them if you like that kind of book, and forget about them when you’re done.
1those of you who know the plot or saw the miniseries can just stop laughing now. You and I know what happens but I’m trying to pretend for people who haven’t read the book yet!