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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fiction vs. Fact in Alan Garner's STRANDLOPER

 Here's the first review that I've written for this blog.  A shorter version will appear on Goodreads.  It deals with a novel that is loosely based on the life of William Buckley, an Englishman who was transported to Australia in 1803.

I very much enjoyed  Strandloper.  Other readers might have trouble with the dialects in this novel.  I was able to decipher them without much difficulty, but the author gives no explanations or assistance to readers.  Another caveat is that Garner’s radical divergence from history might disturb those who prefer their historical fiction to be closer to verifiable facts.  When historical figures are fictionalized, it’s delightful when the result speaks to me on a personal level, and is congruent with my own values.  This is a lovely fiction from my perspective. It reminds me of all those very compelling Pagan martyr fictions about Hypatia of Alexandria.  It’s too bad that the truth about Hypatia is more complex. I am someone who tends to research historical fiction when I’m interested in the subject it covers. So I proceeded to uncover the truth about William Buckley, the historical protagonist of Strandloper. ( Please note that if you are searching for him on the internet, you should add Australia to your search terms to avoid being deluged with results related to the conservative pundit William F. Buckley. )
Yes, William Buckley was from a small village in Cheshire, England. Yet beyond this fact, Alan Garner begins to depart from the actual biography of his subject in a major way.  The fictional  character called William Buckley is a Pagan visionary who seems to live more on the mystical plane than in what most of us consider reality.  Not only this, he was taught to read.  This was a rare accomplishment for country villagers in the England of his era.  The real William Buckley lived from 1780-1856 according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.  He was neither a Pagan nor a visionary, and he died illiterate. Garner’s Buckley hadn’t ever left his village before his arrest and transport to Australia. Although there isn’t agreement among the sources that I consulted about the reason why the real Buckley was transported, they do agree that Buckley fought Napoleon in Holland. It seems to me that the fictional Buckley of Strandloper is more likely to have been confined to Bedlam than to have had any kind of a military career.  I loved the ability of Garner’s character to immerse himself in Australian aborigine culture.  The real Buckley lived among the aborigines for 32 years, but he had a more ambivalent relationship with them.   I was interested to learn that Australians admire Buckley’s unlikely survival in the outback so much that they call a low probability of success “Buckley’s chance”.

If you would like to learn more about the real William Buckley, here are the resources that I found:

The Life and Adventures of William Buckley
 This is the Goodreads book page for a biography of Buckley that appeared in 1852 while Buckley was still alive.  Although it wasn't well received when it was first published, historians now see it as an accurate portrayal of Buckley's experiences and Australian aborigine culture. 

Article on William Buckley in The Australian Dictionary of Biography

Article on William Buckley from Cheshire Magazine

 A video dramatization of Buckley's life with the aborigines on an Australian blog

Video on  the same Australian blog about William Buckley

William Buckley on Wikipedia

In conclusion, even though Strandloper can't be considered historically accurate, it was an amazingly good story.  It also led me to learn a bit more about Australian history through the research I did on William Buckley after reading it.  I'm glad I selected this book as my Australian read for the Around the World challenge. 

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