A Sweeping Family Saga – “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough
While not traditionally a “romance novel,” I decided to end February with Colleen McCullough’s timeless saga, “The Thorn Birds” largely due to the infamous 1980’s mini-series it was adapted into. (And which became the second-highest-rated mini-series of all time – beat only by “Roots.”) At the time, the mini-series was considered scandalous. The story of a priest in love with a woman got the church’s panties in a bunch, and even McDonalds pulled their advertising.
Sex and Scandal AND McDonalds? How American, right?
“The Thorn Birds” is the story of the Cleary family, and spans generations. We begin with a glimpse of Meggie (our main character) on her fourth birthday, when her gift is a doll she’s admired from afar. She opens her present, begins to admire it, and her brothers take it and destroy it. Clearly, it ain’t easy growing up in the outback.
The Clearys are poor, hard-working people. When a wealthy aunt offers Paddy (The Father of the Clearys) a job on her huge sheep station – Drogheda – the Clearys move to Austrailia.
And it all goes to hell. Amen.
Young Meggie catches the eye of a stunningly-handsome priest named Father Ralph. The Clearys wealthy aunt, Mary, is attracted to Father Ralph, though he’s hoping she’ll give him enough money to leave the desolate Australian outback and head somewhere civilized. Though the years, the two are close, and as Meggie grows up Father Ralph finds himself attracted to her, though stopped by the bounds of his sacred vows. Meggie loves him back, not understanding that a Priest’s vows can never be broken. After Aunt Mary’s death, Father Ralph is suddenly given all the money he needs, and each member of the Cleary family gets a generous sum as well. Ralph leaves, but not after a passionate kiss in the rain with Meggie and a plea to her to find someone to marry.
Meggie listens, and marries a handsome worker named Luke O’Neill. Together, they move to North Queensland, but the wedded bliss doesn’t last long. Soon, Meggie is working as a housemaid while Luke goes off to work on a sugar cane plantation (despite the fact that Meggie has more than enough money to buy them their own land.) Luke becomes more and more distant, Meggie grows to hate him, but eventually has his child. Father Ralph arrives for the birth (which Luke can’t be bothered to attend) and tells Meggie he’s off to Rome. Since childbirth was so rough, the family Meggie has been working for sends her on a two-month vacation to an island resort. She goes, alone, and begins to realize who she is as a woman. Father Ralph arrives, stays a few days, and leaves Meggie pregnant again. Over her marriage, Meggie tells Luke off and leaves him – heading home to Drogheda, pregnant, and with her first child in tow. The second Meggie’s child is born, her mother recognizes it’s Father Ralph’s child. Meggie’s two children – Justine (who is Luke’s child) and Dane (Father Ralph’s child) – grow up and experience life adventures of their own. Justine becomes an actress, and when Dane says he wants to become a priest Meggie sends him straight-away to Rome to study under Father Ralph.
In the end, there’s more tragedy – and Drogheda will fade away as the young people grow up and move away.
(FYI — Believe it or not, the synopsis above is bare-bones. There are a ton of characters and events I didn’t even mention. You simply have to read it to take it all in.)
Tragedy, Romance, Scandal — “The Thorn Birds” has everything. McCullough is a splendid writer, and handles the decades that pass with skill. Each character is vivid and could share their own saga. I adored this book, and recommend it highly. Meggie Cleary O’Neill is a wonderful leading character to follow through all these years, and her story – like every story happening around her – is fascinating. (Think of her as a less-bitchy and less-ambitious Scarlett O’Hara.)
I cannot wait to watch the mini-series.
Can. Not. Wait.