Alexandra Pearl Cain
A.B. Facey, A Fortunate Life, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2018 ; pp: 424; RRP $26.99 Paperback.
A.B. Facey’s memoir, A Fortunate Life, has been rereleased in 2018 to mark the 100th year anniversary of World War I. Born in 1894, Facey was abandoned by his mother in Victoria and, as a child, moved to Western Australia on the heels of the goldrush. With the gold drying up, he and his extended family began a life as settlers, farming wheat and livestock. On the farm, Facey learnt the intricacies of starting out on the land, of fencing, rearing livestock, using fire, planting and harvesting, of the seasons and the snakes and the dingoes. But, at the age of eight, when there were too many mouths to feed, Facey was sent to work for a settler who promised to take good care of him, and instead beat him half to death. This begins the series of misfortunes that string together Facey’s ‘fortunate’ life. Written in prose as simple and hardy as its subject, this memoir positions itself as a quintessential telling of the early Great Australian Dream—the search for a home.
Rather than a steady home, the young Facey is lost in the confusion and purposelessness of life on the Australian frontier. The early days of white settlement in Western Australia were (largely) lawless; the newcomer settlers were uncertain about how to tackle the land; the climate was unforgiving. White men stumbled, often drunk (though Facey was a non-drinker) about the scorching landscape, makingmoney wherever they could, often at the expense of others, and certainly at the expense of the indigenous populations. Facey does not always do this reality justice. The Aboriginal people he encounters, even the people he works with over several months, are rarely named or even attributed facial features. Facey fails to question or reflect upon why indigenous drovers did not receive a bonus like white drovers did, noting this only in passing (p.227). Similarly, the trackers, who save his life when he gets desperately lost in the bush, remain utterly foreign to him.
Rather than a reflection on these confronting themes, Facey’s memoir resembles, in part, a meticulously maintained inventory. Facey repetitively provides details on the price of wheat or sheep in a given year—‘we got fifteen bushels per acre average from our wheat, and about sixty tons of hay from the fifty acres of oats’ (p.394)—on how one clears the land, or fixes machinery. At times, the copious detail works as a distraction that keeps Facey from delving into reflection on emotions, relationships, and injustices done both to Facey and others. By only breeching the surface of these thoughts and feelings, Facey does not allow the reader to see him come to terms with his difficulties or the difficulties of others. When Facey occasionally reflects on his life, he reflects on his abandonment, his harsh treatment at the hands of his employers, his love for his ‘strong, capable and warm-hearted’ grandmother (p.400), and his wife Evelyn, with whom he was ‘partners in everything since the day of our wedding’ (p.418). He reflects on his love of the land and its animals that ‘made the bush a beautiful place and made one forget about loneliness’ (p.127). These reflections are what allows the reader to understand and experience Facey’s strengths and vulnerabilities.
Despite a lack of such reflection, Facey’s memoir remains a triumph. Facey received no formal education in his youth. His literacy was hard won, well after his return from Gallipoli. This is his story, told as best as he could tell it. A question, raised by the title, presses on the reader until the very end of the memoir: in what way is this ‘a fortunate life’? Facey’s life, measured in forgotten birthdays and Christmas debaucheries, was much harder than it ought to have been. Undoubtedly, Facey’s meeting with his wife Evelyn appears fateful, and it is with Evelyn that Facey finally finds himself a steady home, a place of domestic contentment. Perhaps the memoir is suggesting that it is quintessentially Australian, to see fortune where in reality there is little; that the illusion of fortune, grounded in the ideal of hard work and perseverance, is an essential element of the Great Australian Dream—the search for a home. Facey powers through his misfortunes with a resolve that is naïve and bull-headed in his youth, and dogged, a real struggle, in his adulthood, especially after Gallipoli. Ultimately, Facey’s memoir, like his home, was not handed to him by ‘fortune’, but by the grit of his own determination.
Alexandra Pearl Cain