The provenance and review of a hard to obtain memoir that reads like a novel.
Earlier this year as I attempted to collect all 20 of the Penguin English Journey series, one volume, A Shropshire Lad, was on back order and seemed unlikely to be available with any timeliness. So I appealed to Karen at Cornflower Books to see if any of the participants in her online book club had a clean copy they were willing to part with. Thankfully Jill, a lovely woman in Australia, came up with a copy she was willing to send me. In exchange, I told her to pick out a book from The Book Depository and I would have it sent to her. She picked out Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennis. Feeling like the cost of that volume would barely cover Jill’s postage cost for sending me her copy of A Shropshire Lad let alone the cost of the book itself, I felt inclined to send her a couple of additional titles to thank her. I chose two of my favorite, and very different, American novels, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather and The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman. Well, in a move akin to a benevolent arms race between our two countries Jill upped the ante by sending me a copy of A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey.
I have read woefully little by Australian authors so it was no shock that this title was new to me. About a week ago Jill emailed me to tell me that the Australian Broadcasting Company has an on-air book club that was going to be featuring a discussion of A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. Shute, a favorite of mine, was a British ex-pat who lived in Australia and wrote some great novels set in Australia. She also mentioned that they would be discussing A Fortunate Life in December. This prompted me to pick up this book that she had given me. I was just going to give it a glance to see how high up I should put it on the TBR pile. Happily once I read a few sentences I was hooked and ended up not putting it down until I got to page 84 at 1:00 AM.
Albert Facey was born in 1894 and spent much of childhood fending for himself in the Australian bush. After his father died when Facey was only two years old, the family was dispersed in various parts of western Australia as his mother and his older siblings tried to find ways to support themselves. All but abandoned to his aunt and grandmother Facey’s childhood was marked by poverty and a hardscrabble existence as these pioneers built lives for themselves on the Australian frontier. At an early age Facey began a succession of jobs working for (and often being abused by) various settlers in the general region of his family’s farm. Of course this is the wide open frontier where a “close” neighbor might live five miles away. So when his live-in work life became abusive, getting away and back to his family wasn’t an easy thing. By the time he was 14 he had probably done more work than most of us will do in our lifetimes.
As much as this is the story of Facey’s life, it is also the story of western Australia. Facey’s many jobs bring to life the blood, sweat, and tears it took to settle the Australian bush: clearing land for crops and pastures, building dams for water supply, driving cattle to market, laying railroad track and many other grueling tasks. The many anecdotes Facey tells about work and family are humorous as often as they are sad or frightening. He wonderfully describes a way of life and perhaps more importantly a way of seeing life that most of us can only imagine.
The bulk of the book focuses on the many things Facey did before the age of 20. This was the part of the book I enjoyed most. Although he didn’t keep a diary (being largely illiterate until into 20s) and wasn’t necessarily witnessing great events at close quarters, I think Facey is a bit of an Australian Pepys. In addition to the detail Facey gives us about such a wide variety of frontier experiences his life after 20 also illuminates on a personal level the grand sweep of Australian history in 20th century. From his service on the bloody shores of Gallipoli in World War I to his Depression-era experiences to the many ways an uneducated boy from the bush manages to survive into old age in a rapidly changing world.
Even though one knows going into it that Facey survives into the his 80s, it is hard not to get caught up the drama of his early years. Probably because Facey encounters more than his fair share of adversity and danger. This book is a page-turner and it is a shame that it is not readily available outside of Australia. Over 750,000 copies have been sold there, but it seems to be rather hard to find from these shores. I checked The Book Depository this morning as well as Barnes and Noble and Amazon and none of them seemed to have reasonable copies available. Come on Penguin, share this one with the rest of the world.