Buckley’s Chance by Garry Linnell

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Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

What a tale this is. William Buckley was a towering giant of a man. After being wounded in the Napoleonic wars, he fell on hard times and was transported to Australia for petty theft. Sailing into Port Phillip in 1803 as a convict dragged into the British government’s half-hearted attempt to found a new penal colony, he escaped into the bush and lived wild for the next 32 years. The difference between life and death was being taken in by the Wadawurrung people who fed and clothed him and ultimately offered him a place in their society.

Buckley emerged from hiding when John Batman’s people were making a “treaty” with the inhabitants to cheat them of their land and in order to settle unlawfully. Buckley acted as translator and something of an intermediary, increasingly torn between the two societies and their vastly different customs and values. Colonial Melbourne was a lawless frontier, driven by greed.  Eventually, the demise of the indigenous clans was inevitable. Even Charles Darwin, despite his interest in the native flora and fauna during a brief stopover, was glad to leave.

Buckley’s story is unique and the facts of his life are fascinating. The problems facing anyone writing his history were that Buckley was illiterate and not particularly talkative; and the few available secondary sources are unreliable. This is particularly so for those crucial 32 years where there is very limited information about his life with the Wadawurrung.

Gary Linnell was interviewed on the ABC (Late Night Live 9 October 2019) and referred to this paucity of sources which made it hard to bring the story to life. He had initially attempted to write a ‘straight’ historical narrative, but felt that it rendered Buckley remote and vague. So he decided to have the narrator telling the story to Buckley, as if they are in the same place and time.  

The interview was a lesson in the art of storytelling. Linnell spoke engagingly and summarised Buckley’s story with both historical accuracy and a storyteller’s instinct for the captivating.  Stripped of embellishment, his brief summary still had plenty to entice a prospective reader. It also showed that Linnell has an enviable command of the facts as well as empathy with Buckley and his adoptive “family”.

The reason for this preamble about the interview is that it proved to me that Linnell can be a consummate storyteller. The research and the attention to detail in the book are exemplary. The cover sets up a high expectation: “A new era of Australian storytelling” and “The incredible true story of William Buckley and how he conquered a new world”. Setting aside the hyperbole, it is clear that the author has set out to tell a ripping yarn in an entertaining way.

The style is in the mould of the prolific Peter FitzSimons who has successfully used it for many historical re-imaginings of Australian people and events. The advantage is that, when well executed, the reader can feel right there in the middle of the action.

Readers will make their own judgements about whether the voice of the narrator in Buckley’s Chance is a successful device or an intrusion, for example:

“Your curriculum vitae please, William. Time to update it again. Mind if we have a look? Can’t quite make out that date of birth, but it seems as though you are now in your late 50s? It says that you’ve had quite a few jobs over the years too. You were a bricklayer? A soldier? There’s quite a lengthy gap after that. Took a lengthy stint of long service did we?” [271].

The narrator has an evident empathy with Buckley but is occasionally prone to immodesty: “All those white historians in future years will never understand just how deep you go, how much of your old self you leave behind.” [125].

The respect afforded Buckley and the aboriginal people who appear in the book provides an important counterpoint to many of the past stories and myths.  Linnell has struck a good balance that feels more like natural justice than diatribe. The Wadawurrung clan names and locations, along with a sketch map, are welcomed both as an aid to understanding and a nod to their complex culture and traditions.

The parade of cameos, from famous and not so famous people, helps the reader to see the context of Buckley’s life and the way individuals thought and acted. For instance, a short account of a meeting between Buckley and Governor Franklin is interspersed with two pages of Franklin’s prior, current and future life [262-4]. These diversions can be interesting, but the most satisfying are those which are more relevant to Buckley’s story

The illustrations are a delight and Linnell’s eye for detail provides some illuminating commentaries. A rough sketch by the Surveyor, John Wedge is brought to life: “Drawn from the side, your hair has been cut, beard shaved and the only notable feature is that sharp, upturned nose. It is a crude drawing; as a surveyor Wedge [the sketcher] is all about boundaries and lines, not the meandering subtleties of the human face.” [178].

This is Garry Linnell’s first publication in this genre, having previously written three books on Australian sport. He won a Walkley Award in 1998 for feature writing “Hope Lives Here” about the cancer ward at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital.

The value of this book is its ambition to set the record straight on, not only Buckley and the Wadawurrung people, but also some of the more famous colonists whose reputations exceeded their deeds. For many readers, it should be an engaging piece that offers a realistic impression of the earliest days of one of Australia’s finest cities and the price that the indigenous inhabitants were forced to pay.

Buckley’s Chance

(October 2019)

By Garry Linnell

Penguin Random House – Michael Joseph imprint

ISBN: 9780143795742

340pp; $34.99 (paperback)

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