Alan Garner's Strandloper tells the true story of William Buckley, an 18th century Cheshire man who was transported for blasphemy: he is arrested on Shick-Shack Day, when he has been chosen as the Shick-Shack, an ancient fertility figure. He survives the journey to New Holland, and sets out from the prison camp to walk home. He walks for more than a year in the appalling heat, with little food or water, convinced he can reach China and from there, walk home. However, he collapses on top of a hillock where he lies clutching a stick that is planted there. But the hillock is the grave mound of Murrangurk, a great hero of the Aborigines and the stick is Murrangurk's spear. The Aborigines believe that he is their warrior and has returned from the dead. During the next 32 years William becomes Murrangurk - law-giver, healer, warrior, and holy man.
Then the white men arrive to settle the land, and Murrangurk negotiates with them so that they will not destroy the Aborigines, but the white men kill the men and an elder of Murrangurk's People after trying to forcibly Westernise them, telling the that they must believe in God and Jesus for they are no better than animals. The People eventually move away and William returns to England again to find that Het, the girl who was his Teaser when he was chosen as the Shick-Shack, has not waited for him, and she is married and has a child now.
This is not an easy book to read, but it is a beautiful book and worth persevering through as the end gives the beginning a greater meaning. In another author's hands this story would have been twice or three times the length of Garner's 200 page novel. Garner's prose is spare and the narrative brief. His later work reminds me of John Clare's poetry and Thomas Hardy's prose, in his love of the county of his birth. Garner is owned by Cheshire as Cheshire owns him, not in the sense of possessing it, but in the sense of acknowledging its importance and his dependence on it to give him a sense of place. Like Murrangurk, Garner sings the land to itself, and the land sings him back to himself.
NB: The picture above is the cover design for the Harvill Press hardback edition. It is from the church that is mentioned in the story, where William was taking part in the Shick-Shack Day ceremony - you'll find photos of the windows that are described in the story on Robert Mapson's website.