Title: A Fortunate Life
Author: A.B. Facey
Publisher: Penguin Australia
Publication Date: 19th November 2014 (this edition; the story itself was originally published in 1981)
Rating: 4/5 stars
Born in 1894, Albert Facey lived the rough frontier life of a sheep farmer, survived the gore of Gallipoli, raised a family through the Depression and spent sixty years with his beloved wife, Evelyn. Despite enduring hardships we can barely imagine today, Facey always saw his life as a ‘fortunate’ one. A true classic of Australian literature, his simply written autobiography is an inspiration. It is the story of a life lived to the full – the extraordinary journey of an ordinary man.
This is a heartwarming story which covers many important aspects of Australia’s colonial history. Facey was born in 1894 in Victoria, Australia. His father and two eldest brothers were in Western Australia on the Goldfields. After his father’s death, his mother went over to support her sons, and Facey was raised by his grandmother along with three of his siblings. They later moved to Western Australia and after his mother refused to take her children back, Facey and his siblings accompanied his uncle, his aunt and their children to their new farm in the Wickepin area.
At the age of eight, he was offered work as a farmhand and due to money problems was strongly encouraged to take it. However, he was badly abused by the family who took him in and ended up escaping to return home – an incredible journey for a young boy. He continued to work the land as a farm boy in the local area. A family wanted to adopt him and give him a proper education and home life, however his mother refused to sign the papers.
Facey became a boxing champion, he worked on a stock drive, he was one of those who laid down the railway lines, and he was one of the many young men who signed up to defend their country in the First World War. His stories of Gallipoli are horrifying – he mentions those much-loved tales of Simpson and his donkey and Armistice Day, where all laid down their weapons to bury their dead, giving us another perspective on this integral part of our history. Badly wounded, he was sent home.
My favourite anecdote was that, while in Gallipoli, the boys received care packages. Facey’s was from a girl named Evelyn Gibson. Some of the lads in his trench knew her, but he told them to sod off, she was his. On his return home, walking in the streets of Perth, he and some mates met a group of girls, one of whom was the very same Evelyn Gibson. They began courting shortly after and were married. It was such a lovely conclusion to such a sad part of Facey’s life.
But the pain doesn’t stop there. Facey had a lot of difficulty finding work after the war. His injuries meant that he couldn’t continue doing the backbreaking work he was used to, and his lack of any formal education made it difficult to find employment outside of hard labour. One scene, in which Facey attends an interview only to be told they would hire him at a lower rate because he had a war pension, is devastating. Some of the ways in which soldiers were treated on their return was shameful.
The outbreak of World War Two brings even more upset, as some of Facey’s children are old enough to enlist. Facey himself tried to join up, but his injuries and age prevented his acceptance. One of their sons was killed in an explosion in Singapore.
It is a wonderful story, as is the tale of its publication. Facey, thinking his story unremarkable to those unknown to himself, requested twenty copies of his manuscript to be printed and bound for his family and friends. However, it was immediately accepted for commercial publication, and appeared on shelves just nine months before his death. In interviews he said that he ‘had no idea what all the fuss was about’ and when questioned about the title said that ‘I called it A Fortunate Life because I truly believe that is what I had’.
There is a mix of heartbreak and hope throughout the story, but Facey maintains the typical Australian larrikin spirit, so embodied in our histories of Gallipoli, making this a heartwarming tale despite its many miseries. It is a brilliant story which all young Australians should read to understand the generations that have come before and to gain a glimpse into a primary account of some of Australia’s greatest historical moments.