There’s a certain delicious defiance in calling a novel a “true history”, don’t you think? It’s especially so in the case of True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. In “reality” (but who even decides what that is anymore?), this is a fictional story based rather loosely on the life of renowned bush-ranger Ned Kelly and his gang, so there’s no need to get your knickers in a knot about its historical accuracy. I’m pretty forgiving when it comes to the ol’ creative license, especially when a writer has clearly researched their subject so thoroughly. It’s impossible to fault Peter Carey’s attention to detail, whatever else you might say about this book…
… and people have had plenty to say about it, believe me! Let’s start with the good stuff. True History Of The Kelly Gang won the Booker Prize in 2001 (always good to see an Aussie author get an international gong!), and the Commonwealth Writers Prize that same year, along with about a dozen other awards and short-listings. This edition is absolutely gorgeous, I was blown away by the design and layout; clearly, the designers took a lot of time and care with it, and they did a bang-up job. The opening line serves as the blurb on the back, and it’s powerful as all heck:
“I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”Blurb, True History Of The Kelly Gang
It’s a pretty good example of the tone and style of the book on the whole, which some people hate, and others love – I’m definitely one of the latter. As I recall, True History Of The Kelly Gang is the first book I’ve read written in a uniquely Australian dialect or vernacular (albeit one that is clearly heavily influenced by the Kelly family’s Irish roots). There’s no punctuation for speech, which normally I would find pretentious and annoying (looking at you, Richard Flanagan!), but in this case it didn’t bother me at all. All of the stylistic punctuation and grammar choices felt quite natural – because it was. Carey modelled his style off the most famous surviving piece of Ned Kelly’s own writing, The Jerilderie letter. The National Museum of Australia has the full text available online, but if you can’t be bothered to take a look at it yourself, let me reassure you that the similarity in expression is uncanny. Carey positions True History Of The Kelly Gang as an autobiography, written in Kelly’s own hand, and divided into thirteen sections. He includes a blurb at the beginning of each section describing the fictional manuscript’s condition, as though it were catalogued in a library or museum.
Now, it’s hard to explain the Australian fascination with Ned Kelly to an international audience – especially being, as I am, an Australian who has never known any different. We mythologise this guy to an unbelievable extent. The only comparison I can think to draw is to call him a self-styled Robin Hood, or Jesse James, of the bush. Because no one outside Australia knows (or gives a shit) about Ned Kelly, the American publishers of True History Of The Kelly Gang actually promoted it as a “great American novel”. They justified it saying that Carey had lived in New York for many years, and thematically the book relates an apparently “American” experience, but come on! Frankly, the notion that anyone could try to describe this deeply, unabashedly Australian book about an iconic Australian figure, set entirely in Australia and written in an Australian dialect, as an “American novel” – much less a great one – makes me, an Australian, howl with laughter.
That aside, I always thought our national obsession with Ned Kelly was a bit twisted. It was thrust upon me like some kind of gross colonial birthright, and despite the fact that I had no intrinsic interest in the “legend”, I couldn’t avoid absorbing it, as though by osmosis, through repeated and extended exposure. I wondered from the outset whether this book would help me “see the light”, or put me off the subject for good…
True History Of The Kelly Gang begins with a description of John “Red” Kelly, an Irish man transported to (what was then called by the colonials) Van Diemen’s Land. After several encounters with law enforcement and some time in prison, he dies, when Ned Kelly – our “hero” – was just twelve years old. Ellen Kelly, Ned’s long-suffering mother, tried to support her large family by running a shebeen, a notoriously unstable line of work. I loved Ellen, she was a gloriously layered and complex character, more so than any other woman in True History Of The Kelly Gang. She wasn’t entirely likeable, and she made awful decisions, but she was a very strong influence in this version of Ned’s life, and basically underscored his motivations the whole way through the novel. If Ellen’s pure determination and grit could have paid the bills, the Kellys would have been just fine. As it stood, however, the family struggled: financially, emotionally, politically, and in just about every other way you can imagine.
Ellen sends Ned off to apprentice with a bush-ranger by the name of Harry Power, with whom she’d had an affair of sorts. (Oh, and for those of you outside Australia who aren’t familiar with the term, a “bush-ranger” was an escaped convict or outlaw in that colonial period, who lived in the bush (der) and etched out a living through thievery and hold-ups. Not great guys, on the whole.) That’s where Ned Kelly got his start, and he went on to become the most famous bush-ranger of them all, as we’ll see. Power taught him about the land, where to hide, how to steal, and so forth, setting him up for a “successful” life of crime.
Ned initially rejects Power’s way of life, returning to his family and attempting to work an honest job, but he’s promptly arrested and imprisoned for receiving a stolen horse (which he insisted was a gift from a friend – haven’t we all heard that line before?). There are beautiful turns of phrase throughout the whole book, but passages from this section in particular stuck with me for days:
“I were 17 yr. old when I come out of prison 6ft. 2in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as the hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beechworth Gaol. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that gaol boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tarrow pot.”Pg. 215
After that experience, Ned only makes half-hearted attempts to return to an honest life, returning – inevitably – to crime and bush-ranging. His brother Dan comes along for the ride, and they hide from the cops in the hills. Later, they’re joined by their friends Steve Hart and Joe Byrne. Together, they are “the Kelly gang”. They’re also accompanied by Mary, a (very fictional) love interest of Ned’s, who goes on to bear his child. Actually, she’s the character who convinces him to write down his history for their daughter, so that the child will know the “truth” of who her father was. Mary migrates to America before the end of the book, and waits there for Ned to join them (which, of course, he never does).
In an attempt to lure the gang out of hiding, the cops arrest and imprison Ellen Kelly. It doesn’t work. Ned swears he won’t leave the country until his mother is freed, but he’s equally determined not to give the cops what they want. This culminates in a Kelly Gang ambush at Stringybark Creek, where Ned kills three police officers.
The action doesn’t stop there, though: the gang roams the countryside, robbing banks and giving the proceeds of their crimes to the poor and working classes. It sounds like a fine and Robin Hood-esque thing to do, but they had an ulterior motive: they relied on the people they helped to help them in turn, to shelter them and not dob them in.
It all comes to a head in the town of Glenrowan, where the Kelly gang takes a bunch of hostages. Among them is Thomas Curnow, a local schoolteacher, who bonds with Ned over his memoirs. Curnow ultimately betrays them to the police, and there’s an old-timey-style shoot-out in the streets. In both the book and in real life, this is when the gang donned their now-famous home-made suits of plate steel armour (an illustration of Ned’s helmet is depicted on the cover of my edition). Ned is the only member of the gang to survive the confrontation, but he is seriously wounded.
Obviously, Ned can’t narrate this part himself (given that the book is positioned as hand-written first-person records), so the final section ends with a new voice, identified only as “S.C.”, telling the reader the story of this final showdown, Ned’s trial, and his death by hanging. He dies a “hero” to the poor and the working class, but the rich believe it to be good riddance to bad rubbish, and the debate over Ned Kelly’s role in our national history has been debated ferociously ever since.
If you’re a sympathetic soul, you’ll probably have a hard time reading True History Of The Kelly Gang without your heart breaking – just a little – for the Kelly family. They faced some very shitty circumstances, and in a lot of ways Ned’s life of crime seemed pre-destined, unavoidable for him and his brother. What other choice did they have?
However, as I’ve said previously, I’m not a soft touch. Going in, I had a long-held resentment for being force-fed the so-called patriotic view that this violent thug, thief, murderer was some kind of national icon or misunderstood martyr. I can’t say that this book changed that view very much at all. However, I really enjoyed reading it. I thought it was masterful. I know, I’m a walking contradiction! I contain multitudes!
The only element that really disappointed me was finding that True History Of The Kelly Gang was another very white account of Australia’s colonial past. Ned and his gang only mention encountering a couple of trackers in passing, even though they surely would have met and spoken with many more Indigenous Australians in that part of the world at that time. It was a really huge oversight in my view, and one that slightly soured an otherwise wonderful reading experience for me.
If you’ve come to True History Of The Kelly Gang looking for, well, a true history of the Kelly gang, you’re in the wrong place. While Carey did use many historically accurate events and facts from Kelly’s real life, much of the story is invented, including Kelly’s love interest and his daughter and his inclination to write his own memoirs. Still, it’s a great book to read if you enjoyed The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, or if you’re looking for an interesting take on life for Irish convicts in colonial Australia. It’s not a quick or an easy read, and it’s not without its problems, but I still really enjoyed reading it and I can see why it attracted so many accolades upon its release. A film adaptation premiered at the Toronto film festival a couple months back, and is slated for release in Australia next year.
My favourite Amazon reviews of True History Of The Kelly Gang:
- “not my type of reading. Not as interesting as the book spoke about. some chapters were not interesting at all.” – Robert L. Griffith
- “I purchased this book because my book club suggested it. It is a difficult read, due to the poor sentence structure and grammar. Aside from the fact that it is also depressing (which is sometimes realistic) it moves along very slowly and is very predictable.” – Marilyn
- “It’s one of the best adjectival books I’ve ever read.” – Eileen
- “I thought this was a fairly interesting read. Very detailed. Well researched. I assume this is the outlaw that inspired Waltzing Matilda – but this was never said. The book is worth reading if you have and interest in Australian history.” – Bruce Louis Dodson
- “Carey’s actually not a very good author, and this actually isn’t a very good book. If you really feel that you absolutely *MUST* read something about Ned Kelly, then erase those thoughts immediately, because he isn’t worth the two bucks of scrap metal that his stupid helmet was made out of. He’s no hero. He’s just a sauced Irishman with a bad attitude.” – Amazon Customer
- “Who is this Ned Kelly? What relevance does he have to the people of Australia today? Peter… whatever his name is writes an interesting modern fable for the people of that little island of criminals. It imitates a found diary text (are we trying to be TOO confidently literary!?!) and tells of his adventures in struggling to grow up with an inherited criminality, a transvestite father and (gag) the horrible betrayals of the police. This may be a good book for children (peter partly intended this) but it’s not the most sophisticated read.” – Peter Cameron II