Review: True History of the Kelly Gang

I missed reading this novel when it came out in 2000, won the Booker Prize and was made into a movie in 2019. It was written by Peter Carey, an Australian author, who had previously won another Booker. He was born in 1943. He dropped out of the pursuit of a science degree at university and started work in advertising. He began to read important novelists and wrote five unpublished novels. Having spent two years in London, working in advertising, he returned to Australia in 1970. In 1980 he opened his own advertising agency and the following year published his first novel, Bliss. Toward the end of the Australian phase of his career, Oscar and Lucinda was published in 1988 and won the Booker McConnell Prize as it was then known. Carey, who moved to New York in 1990 continues to live there, has received fourteen literary awards, several more than once, nominated twice for musical awards as lyricist, written fourteen novels, two short story collections, a stage play and has been married three times.

Peter Carey

There was a Kelly Gang in Australia in the 1880’s which was famous for its exploits, and for its identity with the marginalised immigrant population. The ‘True History’, however, departs from the historic facts on several points. The character, Mary Hearn, who became Ned Kelly’ lover and the mother of his daughter, never existed. There is no evidence that Kelly sired any children. The relationship between Kelly’s mother, Ellen, and Harry Power, the famous bushranger is a literary fabrication.

The story is told by Ned Kelly himself, in semi-literate writing, without punctuation, to tell his life history to his daughter from his point of view. He began life as the oldest boy of destitute family of Irish extraction trying to survive on a remote farm. His father had numerous brushes with the self-serving rural police which resulted in his death when Ned was 12. His mother then apprenticed Ned to Harry Power so that he could survive as a bushranger. He leaves Power and tries to live within the law, but he is imprisoned for three years for receiving a stolen horse, which he claims was given to him. Released from jail, he worked for two years in a sawmill, but he is drawn back into bushranging when a herd of his horses is stolen by a rival settler. Serious trouble with the police begins when he shoots the gun out of the hand of a corrupt police constable who makes advances on Ned’s younger sister. Four police are sent to kill Kelly, but Ned kills three of them in an ambush. The Kelly gang of four (Ned, his brother, Dan, and two friends are eventually surrounded by a crowd of police who kill the other three gang members and wound Ned. The shootout and Kelly’s death by hanging are told by ‘C. S.’, presumably the relative of the local teacher, Thomas Curnow, who ended up with all the Kelly manuscripts and who warned the police that the train tracks via which they were approaching the gang for the final shootout had been sabotaged. Kelly died a hero to most of the people of northeast Victoria, who amplified his life story over time.

The novel draws an accurate picture of the hard life lived by the large majority of the settlers and of the culture of the police, the judiciary and the ruling class in southeast Australia in the nineteenth century. Life was very hard and it created hard men. The story is told in the uneducated language of an impoverished Irish farmer, who clings to his family and its traditions. Ned never ceases to do what he believes is the just thing, and, in the process, there is an inevitable censure of the values and actions of the authorities. The characters are credible – if unsavory. The action is non-stop. This is a big jump above a good American western in its authenticity, its interest and its contribution to history.

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