Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #81: Fatal Shore, the Epic of Australia's Founding
I've never been to Australia. I've spent some weeks in New Zealand, and adore it, but I've never visited big brother down under. One might wonder why I didn't make the trip when I was in the neighborhood years ago, but it's not as close as one might imagine. It's not unlike visiting Boston and thinking "I'll just swing by Miami". Auckland to Sydney is a similar distance.
Despite never having set foot there, I have maintained an interest in the history of the world's biggest island/smallest continent. The involvement of my old buddies Cook and Bligh is part of the fascination, but it's also one of the most unique origin stories among the community of nations. Inconceivably distant, Australia was the moon as far as 18th-century Europeans were concerned. An alien landscape sparsely populated by indigenous peoples and thickly dense with flora and fauna that hates you, it was hardly considered a garden spot. (Even Cook's PR-conscious naming of a potential colony site as the lush-sounding "Botany Bay" only helped a little.) So the British Empire made the place a prison. In the 80 years of active transportation between 1788 and 1868, 164,000 ne'er-do-wells were shipped to the antipodes.
Some years back I toyed with a manuscript featuring a transported prisoner who escaped Australia, spent time among the Maoris on New Zealand, and hitched a ride with an American whaler to San Francisco. As I sketched out the narrative arc, it started to feel far too much like a Mel Gibson or Russell Crowe vanity epic, and so I shelved it. Plus: historical fiction is exhausting, and the research required for verisimilitude takes on a life of its own. Easier to read somebody's else's work. Besides, the story of Australian history is spectacular enough without any hamfisted efforts by amateur writers.