This is an autobiography written by Albert Facey. It is just as much a biography of Western Australia and of Australia as a young country as anything else. To be honest, if I didn’t have to read it for book club, I doubt I would have read it of my own volition and that would have been a shame because I loved it.
The style of writing is extremely simple, but places and people are both described in detail, which would not normally appeal to me. The simple way he wrote matched how I felt about Facey’s character though – honest, straightforward and down to earth. Moreover, his story is of such hardship and contains such shocking events that no embellishment is needed to make an impact. In some ways, the plain language in which he expressed himself makes the events of his life seem more shocking and confronting because of the plain simple English he wrote in. I guess it is hardly surprising that he writes in this manner considering he was illiterate most of his youth and only really got any formal education after he returned from World War One, yet he is still articulate. It is amazing he managed to remember his youth in such detail without being able to resort to notes or diaries written as a child.
I am used to thinking of Australia as a rich country. I know there are those who live in poverty, but after living in China and always hearing the distinction made that Australia is a wealthy, first world, developed country, whereas China is a poor, developing country (although you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you’ve only been to the more modern areas of a city like Shanghai or Beijing), it is very easy to forget this and also to forget the hard lives lived by early settlers not so very long ago. Stories like Facey’s, of people who overcame extreme poverty and shone as individuals inspite of disadvantages and suffering that plagued their childhood, are strangely uplifting despite the pity they can inspire. That Facey grew up in Western Australia makes his story even more disturbing for me.
Actually, my mother’s family is also from the wheatbelt. One side goes back about six generations (seven including me) in Australia, although I think some of that was spent in Victoria. They are spread through Merredin, Kellerberin, Bruce Rock, Narembeen and Esperance. I’m not sure about the other side except my great grandparents had a farm in Narrogin with relatives in Corrigin and they later moved to Gosnells. They were also working the land with the help of government land grants and settler loans during the time Facey describes. Reading his story was like looking into the history of my own family, one that I sort of knew about but had not really bothered to examine in detail.
I know the country he spoke of. Farming methods he described may have changed, but when he talked about the bush, burning, fencing, lambing, shearing, dams, bails of wool… I flashed back to the years I spent running around on our family farm in the wheatbelt. I can vividly picture every single scene and situation he described and it made me feel really wierd. I felt so sad for him. And a lot of admiration that he soldiered his way through so much neglect and ill-treatment to become a loyal, strong, courageous person who was untainted by bitterness despite all that had happened to him. So many people nowadays like to make excuses for the faults in their own personalities and those in their children. In those days, I suspect they didn’t have this luxury. Times were just too tough.
I had to put this book down several times because it made me so sad. The first time was when he first visited his mother in Perth. People had advised him that regardless of the neglect and irresponsibility she had dealt him, she was still his mother and that this was important. Rubbish. I feel like I am going out on a limb here given that I don’t have kids but… giving birth to someone does not make someone a mother. Love, care and responsibility make a mother. That his mother would think blood was enough to demand the 14-year old son she had neglected for a decade, left in poverty, who had worked for a living for years, been left with criminals and beaten to within an inch of his life… that she would demand money of him astounded me. I almost couldn’t breathe I was so furious. All he craved was for for his mother to love him and instead she treated him like a commodity. Unbelievable.
It must have hurt him to write that down. When someone treats you badly, you can understand on one level is not your fault but theirs. However, when the person doing the abusing is a mother or someone else who ought to love and care for you, I think you can sometimes wonder what is wrong with you or unloveable about yourself that you are treated that way. The blame, shame and guilt associated with the abuse becomes internalised. Also, you can feel that a parent’s shameful behaviour reflects on you too and tarnishes you with the same brush. Admitting to the skeletons in one’s closet is embarrassing, even if you aren’t to blame for them. I felt so sorry for Facey, I had to close the book.
The other part where I had to take a breather was the section about Gallipoli. For anybody who has seen the movie or had to study it in history classes, Facey’s account is nothing new. Yet because it is happening to this same young man whose path the reader has already followed, the horrific events he described in his usual plain style were just heart-rending. I had to put the book down and have a good cry. Even after all these years it is so difficult to accept such a horrible thing could have happened. I know what happened at Gallipoli may have been small in comparison to other wars in human history, but it was Australia’s trial by fire. It was a tragedy that I believe is still relevant to Australian society to this day.
How awful to have then watched his own sons go off to war. How awful to have had to wait in fear for them to return. How heartbreaking to lose a child to the nightmare of war. There is something Facey wrote in a chapter about World War Two, that I agree with completely –
People do terrible things in wars, in the name of their country and beliefs. It is something that I find very sad and frightening.
My experience in the First World War and now the Second World War changed my outlook on things. It is hard to believe that there is a God. I feel that the Bible is a book that was written by man, not for the good of man but for the purpose of preying on a person’s conscience, and to confuse him. Anyone who has taken part in a fierce bayonet charge (and I have), and who has managed to retain his proper senses, must doubt the truth of the Bible and the powers of God, if one exists. And considering the hundreds of different religions that there are in this world of ours, and the fact that many religions have caused terrible wars and hatreds throughout the world, and the many religions that have hoarded terrific wealth and property while people inside and outside of the religion are starving, it is difficult to remain a believer. No sir, there is no God, it is only a myth. (Facey A.B., 1981, pp. 401-2)
I have not taken part in a bayonet charge. I have lived what I consider to be an incredibly fortunate life. But I have still witnessed enough evil in this world to agree with Facey that the omniscient, omnipotent and all-good God I grew up believing in as a child cannot possibly exist.
There are so many things I liked about A Fortunate Life. It was easy to read and I identified with him and his story. It gave me a sense of the history of WA and of my own roots. Albert Facey was a remarkable man and I am glad to have read about his life.