Karen Jestine Walker
ENTC 312/ Unsworth
On May 8, 1977 the New York Time Book Review ran an ad for Colleen McCullough's newest novel, The Thorn Birds. The ad read,
Through fifty years of love and laughter,
tears and exaltation...from Australia's
rugged landscape to the halls of the
Vatican and the world of the London stage
...Collen McCullough "makes her characters
and their concerns come alive [and] gives
them intelligence and complexity and
dimension...The Thorn Birds is a fine book."
The Thorn Birds is also "one of the most
compelling, un-put-downable novels so far
this year...The interweaving of love
stories...the dramatic plotting, the sense
of steadily mounting tension, the believable
characters...are well-nigh irresistible".
Why was the Thorn Birds such a hit? Why did it stay on the best seller list for eight months? In regards to the books literary elements, the ad says it all. The characters are endearing. You sympathize with them, cry with them, laugh with them. The A
ustralian outback is superbly described thanks to Ms. McCullough's Australian origins. The various animals, vegetation, and weather are so clearly depicted there are times when you feel you could reach out and touch them. Finally, by far the most impr
essive thing about The Thorn Birds is the intensity and epic scope of the plot. The story goes from one side of the globe to the other and the action occurs at a break-neck pace. The reader can't help but be engulfed. The 10 million+ copies sold and
Avon's $1.9 million dollar bid for the paperback rights attest to this fact. However, it is not just the books literary merits that make it a best-seller. There are a host of other outside elements that made the book a success.
One of the keys to this book's appeal is the authors involvement. She too, was engulfed by the book. After the failure of her first novel Tim she was determined to succeed. In an interview with the Village Voice (Smith) McCollough candidly recounte
d the story of the book's conception. She began the Thorn Birds in June of 1975. Each night she typed at least 15,000 words. During the process her legs swelled and she had to wear long gloves. These protected her arms from being chafed by her sides
and her fingers from blistering and cracking on the keys. The book was written in the aftermath of an unhappy love affair and McCullough's feelings about the relationship come through. The book revolves around how the "character's impale themselves on
self-induced miseries." (Clemons) The prologue reads,
There is a legend about a bird which
sings just once in its life, more sweetly
than any other creature on the face of the
earth. From the moment it leaves the nest
it searches for a thorn tree, and does not
rest until it has found one. Then, singing
among the savage branches, it impales
itself on upon the longest, sharpest spine.
And, dying, it rises above its own agony to
out-carol the lark and the nightingale.
One superlative song, existence the price.
But the whole world stills to listen, and
God in His heaven smile. For the best is
only bought at the cost of great pain
...Or so says the legend.
Misery loves company. (As the popularity of soap operas suggests.) Everyone who's ever been in love and lost or stepped out on faith to reach for the impossible only to fail can relate to the book. In fact, that is the book's appeal the particular
circumstances of your experience doesn't matter. Everyone can relate to the sentiment.
Another key element of the book McCullough's personal life plays a part in is the description. McCullough was born in Wellington, New South Wales, Australia. Her father was a sugar cane cutter and her mother a housewife. Like Meggie, as a child McCu
llough attended convent school, was raised chiefly around men. (In McCullough's case they were uncles not brothers), and is bold and non-conformist.
McCullough's life and experiences in Australia shine through in the novel's descriptions. McCullough's passages describing the landscape and various animals conjure up mental pictures as vivid as those in National Geographic Magazine. Perhaps this i
s the factor that led to a successful television miniseries. McCullough also does a remarkable job of describing the life and work of sugar cane cutters and sheep herders/shearers. She goes into the details of the work including names of tools, the prop
er seasons for harvesting, and the bodily demands involved without boring the reader.
Lastly, there is an element of McCullough's character in Meggie. Though raised in the shadow of eight brothers, Meggie Cleary is definitely not a character to be overlooked or relegated to the shadows. For her time, she extremely liberated. For this
reason women especially, relate to and are endeared to her character. During the seventies when this book was written, Women's Lib was at a highpoint. Women no longer wanted to be characterized as housewives and mothers. They instead focused on havi
ng careers and self-understanding outside of society's traditional definition.
Meggie, though at times in her life a mother and wife, never conforms to the traditional role expected of women. She sees her mother and what it's done to her and vows never to be victim. Meggie rides with her brothers on the farm, leaves her neglecti
ng husband, and has an illegitimate child with a much older priest. She is a valiant woman who is determined to get what she wants.
Colleen McCullough is regarded as a spit-fire too. She is 39 years old, five foot ten and weighs 200 pounds. When asked about her weight she told People magazine "but at least I have a waistline and a good pair of knockers." This response is typical
of McCullough. She is a candid woman who is confident in herself and her abilities. In a letter from Robert Hale, manager of the Hathaway House bookstore in Wellesley, MA, wrote to Harper & Rowe he wrote,
"but do what you can to get Colleen on.
She is such a character and she will
appeal to all of those people who should
read her book...[she would have] at least
as much entertainment value as many who
are regulars on the tube. She is truly
funny and original and bold as brass."
As Hale notes, McCullough's boldness and non-conformity make her a hit with her fans. She is a role model for the Women's Liberation movement yet not so outrageous as to turn people off. While sticking to her guns about women's roles she doesn't den
ounce romance and the literary styles that have traditionally been popular with women.
To further excite Women' s Libers McCullough indulges in minor male bashing throughout the book. With lines like, "She eyed his flaccid penis, snorting with laughter." (p83) An article in Time magazine notes,
The ambitious men are silly and the
steady ones are inconsequential.
Meggie's eight brothers either die or
disappear into the woodwork. Women
seem to live forever, while every
hundred pages or so another man is
burned alive or disemboweled by a wild
boar or drowned or unsexed by gunshot
wounds. None of this carnage is
required by the plot. The males are
punished because their punishment is
what romantic fiction requires. (Gray)
An additional appeal of the Thorn Birds is its lack of perversion. Though sex is a key element of the book it is not talked about in a raunchy style. In Book World, Alice K. Turner writes, "it's both romantic and clean enough to make an ideal present
for Aunt Tillie, while you won't regret making room for it in your own beach bag." (Turner) The seventies was a time of sexual freedom. Single's Clubs, Coed Housing, and Gay Rights demonstrations were prevalent to the displeasure of many. McCullough'
s subtlety was a relief for many who long for the purity of the fifties.
It is the appeals to the time period like these that made the book so wildly popular. Another draw of the book is its comparison to an earlier best-seller and hit movie.
Often The Thorn Birds is compared to another historical romance novel of epic proportions, Gone With the Wind. It is frequently called "the Australian "Gone with the Wind"" (Caplan) Though the book was written in the late thirties, there are striking s
imilarities. A strong female heroine, star crossed lovers, red-headed twins, a long suffering mother, love of the land, war, and a story that spirals through multiple city. Though the books share striking similarities the one commonality most commented
on is that between Rhett Butler and Archbishop Ralph de Bricassart. Critics and Reviewers alike note that there is a shortage of quality male heroes in romance novels. Not since Rhett Butler has there been a male so dashing, articulate, or attractive to
audiences. However similar, the books aren't perfectly parallel. The Times Literary Supplement notes, "those in interested in role reversal will notice that the petulance and whimsy that made life at Tara so taxing haven taken an unexpected turn [i
n the Thorn Birds]".
This book's photographic recollection of scenery, dashing male hero, and suspenseful plot made it ideal for adaptation into film. In 1983 "The Thorn Birds" aired on ABC. It was the second most-watched miniseries in television history. It was direct
ed by Daryl Duke and starred Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jean Simmons. It's success once again peaked interest in the book. It's popularity also spawned a sequel aired on CBS "The Thorn Birds: the Missing Years" in 1996.
Most of the cast and director returned for this "mid-quel". Much to the disappointment of the network and original Thorn Birds fans this miniseries was a flop and did nothing for book sales. Perhaps this failure can be attributed to the authors anger a
t having her book once again turned into a film and rewritten. The "mid-quel" made up a story to fill in missing gaps the original book failed to account for. McCullough loudly protested and there was much scandal involved.(People On-Line)
There are various technical reasons for this book's appeal but the main reason is not at all complicated. The reason Colleen McCullough's "Thorn Birds" has been translated into multiple languages and is still in print with an upcoming edition set t
o be released in September of this year is "Everybody loves the page turner."(Caplan) In The National Observer he writes,
trash can be fun too, as deliciously
addictive and sinful as bon-bons. We
have squandered secret, sheepish
afternoons in seagull heaven or the
valley of the dolls. The trashy
novel's literary demerits only
underline its compulsive quality.
Romance, adventure, suspense, or
horror keeps those page turning-and
makes a publishing success. For
whether it's good or worthless or
in-between, everybody reads the page
His assessment is true. One look at the best-sellers list would corroborate his statement. In The Times Literary Supplement Anita Brookner writes,
"Something I can get my teeth into",the
woman in the library said to me the other
day. The analogy with eating is fairly
important, as is the grass-roots conviction
that novels should be long, pleasurable,
and nourishing. The Thorn Birds,...has
arrived in time to save a sizeable part
of the population from malnutrition.
The Thorn Birds' success is easily defined. It sells because trash is interesting and fun to read. The literary merits of the book are often criticized or down played by critics but none of them deny its appeal or its impact. It is a bad good book whi
ch is chiefly the role of romances. They are read by the reader with the advance knowledge that the characters will be stock, the plot formulaic, and overly stylized writing yet the American audience craves them they are break from reality. It's more f
un to wallow in others misery and to ignore or down-play our own for a while.
New York Times
Books in Print (Virgo)
The Thorn Birds 1st edition
Bucaneer Books, Incorporated: February 1998
Book World Ap.24 '77, Turner
Times Literary Supplement O. 7 '77, Brookner
National Observer Je. 20 '77, Caplan
New York Times Book Review My. 8 '77, Bannon, Smith
Time My 9 '77, Gray
Village Voice Mr. 28 '77, Smith