The Thorn Birds (1977)

by Colleen McCullough

This is the story centering around a Catholic priest who loves an 10-year-old girl as he would the daughter he’ll never have, and then the girl grows up, and he loves her as a woman. One wonders if with the clergy sexual abuse revelations, Colleen McCullough would have had second thoughts about starting the story in Meggie Cleary’s childhood. When actually did Father Ralph de Bricassart first have sexual feelings toward Meggie?

Regardless, he says he loves God more. And he’s ambitious. Father Ralph wants to rise in the church, and a cunning old woman
s will ensures that he will. He leaves behind the Australian Outback and Meggie, and they spend the rest of their lives cherishing one another at great distances, with rare but consequential meetings.

Many people praise The Thorn Birds as one of the greatest love stories ever told, although some find the characters flat and undeveloped. For the latter group there may be another appeal of the book: Australian McCullough’s intimate knowledge of the Outback brings to life a region most people know only as a remote area of a faraway country. Severe weather episodes pose formidable challenges for the sheep-farming Cleary family. McCullough details the hardships in an epic story that spans three generations, from the Irish immigrants Paddy and Fee through Meggie and her brothers and then Meggie’s two children, the only members of the third generation.

The book’s title refers to a legend that Father Ralph tells the young Meggie about a bird that sings just once in its life. It searches for a thorn tree from the day it leaves the nest until it impales itself on a long, sharp spine. Dying, it sings more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. When Meggie asks what it means, he answers, “That the best . . . is brought only at the cost of great pain.” Presumably McCullough was foreshadowing Meggie and Ralph
s forbidden love, but it's hard to figure out just how the metaphor applies.


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