True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

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Ned Kelly is a heroic figure for Australians.  He was not a founding father, not a great leader of the country, not a great inventor or thinker.  He was a bushranger, that is, an outlaw, in the 1870s.  Peter Carey wanted to explore what it is about Australians that makes them find Kelly a heroic figure.  Of course there was also a long letter that Kelly wrote to defend himself in 1879 reproduced here that inspired Peter Carey to recreate Kelly’s life through his own voice as imagined by Carey.  A quick look will tell you why Carey was so taken with the letter.

The story is told through documents Carey imagined Ned Kelly would write to his daughter to help her understand his life and to defend his actions.  His daughter was very young when Kelly was hung and he never saw her.  One device that Carey uses to convey Ned Kelly is to replace crude language with “adjectival” or occasionally “effing.”  So there’s a lot of “Get your adjectival self out of here, before I adjectival kill you.”  And this is to protect the daughter…

Ned Kelly was the son of an Irish convict sent to Australia; his mother’s family members were often in trouble with the law.  The Irish were oppressed by the English in Australia and believed any effort to develop the land and live the farmer’s life was made impossible by the hateful police.  This is basically Kelly’s defense for actions he took to protect his mother (he was the oldest son), and later for robbing two banks and shooting policemen.  He was convinced his choices were limited.  I was not quite convinced.

As to why the Australians so revere Kelly, Peter Carey in an interview says he believes it can be traced to being a penal colony.  He spoke of an old friend from a wealthy background who had lived in Britain for years being able to summon up great anger at the way the police treated Kelly and others.

This is a wonderfully rich and complex book and I could go on for ages, but I must mention just one or two other points.  First, the transvestism that crops up.  To the family’s great shame, Kelly’s father sometimes was seen wearing a dress.  Kelly finds the dress while the father is in prison and burns it.  It turns up again in a young man who eventually becomes a member of the gang.   Kelly’s wife tells him that Irish rebels wore dresses as a disguise.

In the end the Kelly gang was set upon by a huge number of police — 30 men.  His defense involved homemade armor which left their legs exposed.  He was captured and stood trial for killing three policeman.  Another impetus for Carey to write this book was the work of Sidney Nolan.  His paintings of Ned Kelly in armor are pretty wonderful.

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