The Barnes & Noble Review
In this masterful performance, two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey, author of Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs, rescues the legacy of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly from the colonial compost with his ironically titled novel, True History of the Kelly Gang. In a bold and ingenious act of historical ventriloquism, Kelly's "true history" -- which won the 2001 Booker Prize -- is presented in the form of several idiosyncratic journals supposedly written by the outlaw himself and dedicated to his unborn daughter, so that the real tale of his life might be preserved and remembered.
While the historical record portrays Kelly as a ruthless crook and brutal murderer, Carey's Kelly is an essentially good person whom circumstance has forced into a life of crime -- a criminal with a heart of gold. Our impulse as Americans is to compare Kelly to Jesse James or John Dillinger, but the hero of True History is at war with a system not merely for personal gain but also to effect political change, and he therefore might better be likened to our Founding Fathers.
Born and raised in the Australian state of Victoria to Irish parents, Ned Kelly and his siblings have been mired in troubles for as long as they can remember (their father being a former convict and their mother a member of the Quinn family, notorious local rabble-rousers). After an attempt at leading a straight life after becoming well acquainted with the insides of various prisons during his early years, young Kelly soon yields to fate and takes up horse stealing and bank robbery as a means to provide for his mother, his wife, and his unborn child. Swept along for the ride, as it were, are his brother and two pals. Faced with adversity each step of the way in the guise of evil constables and determined colonial magistrates, the gang come to realize that there is no way out of the life they are leading, apart from fleeing overseas or turning themselves in. Kelly refuses to flee until his mother, who has been wrongly jailed, is set free.
Newspaper accounts of their exploits distort the facts, naturally, depicting the Kelly Gang as a dangerous band of marauders. While the political authorities mount an effort to stamp them out, local farmers and businessman come to their aid and offer protection. They perceive Kelly not as a criminal but as a Robin Hood out to make a better life for everyone. At one point, he even drafts a 60-plus-page letter explaining himself to the public, but the papers refuse to publish it. Gradually the tension builds and the Kellys are tracked down, and their trail leads to one final showdown, complete with a St. Crispin's speech that rivals any in literature.
True History of the Kelly Gang is that rare species of novel that is at once impossible to put down and magnificently original, lyrical, and literary. Carey's unpunctuated prose reminds one of William Faulkner, while the hero's epic adventure brings to mind contemporary western writer Cormac McCarthy. But the supreme achievement is Kelly's voice, for that is what moves the story, and that, chiefly, is what seduces us into his favor. We believe so strongly in his innate goodness that we forgive him his sins and root for him to the end.
There's no such thing as a typical Peter Carey novel. The Booker-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988) was an eccentric epic set in the Australian outback, while Jack Maggs (1988) was an elegant ingenious literary deconstruction of Dickens' Great Expectations. His new novel,
True History of the Kelly Gang is a remarkable achievement, and it rewards the persistent reader with a powerful emotional experience. The research is impressively detailed, and Mr. Carey rarely succumbs to the temptation to flaunt it. If you want punctuation and good grammer and a coherent point of view, then go read somebody else's book. But if you want the true history of the Kelly gang, this is it.
Wall Street Journal
Nineteenth-century Australian frontier outlaw Ned Kelly remains ambiguoushe was a killer, a martyr, a petty thief, a calculating leader of a murderous gang. The son of dirt-poor Irish immigrants, Kelly was a criminal by the time he was a teen- ager. He was hanged at twenty-five, after evading authorities for years and gaining a considerable following among lower-class Australians, who revered him for rebelling against rich, domineering Anglo landlords. Carey, who won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda, teases something else out of the legend: the tragedy of a would-be author, desperately trying to control the shape and meaning of his own story. Carey has fashioned a prose marvel; Kelly is doomed by prejudice, misunderstanding, distorted newspaper accounts, gossipall made worse by a rigid code of honor and a naive belief that "if a man could tell his true story to Australians he might be believed." Here we have the voice of the outlaw himself, telling his tale as he lives it, becoming less of a man and more of a myth with each page.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Every Australian grows up hearing the legend of outlaw Ned Kelly, whose exploits are memorialized in the old Melbourne Gaol, where he and his comrades were imprisoned before their execution in 1880. Carey's inspired "history" of Kelly from his destitute youth until his death at age 26 is as genuine as a diamond in the rough. No reader will be left unmoved by this dramatic tale of an instinctively good-hearted young man whose destiny, in Carey's revisionist point of view, was determined by heredity on one side and official bigotry and corruption on the other; whose criminal deeds were motivated by gallantry and desperation; and whose exploits in eluding the police for almost two years transfixed a nation and made him a popular hero. The unschooled Kelly narrates through a series of letters he writes to the baby daughter he will never see. Conveyed in run-on sentences, with sparse punctuation and quirky grammar enriched by pungent vernacular and the polite use of euphemisms for what Kelly calls "rough expressions" ("It were eff this and ess that"; "It were too adjectival hot"), Kelly's voice is mesmerizing as he relates the events that earned him a reputation as a horse thief and murderer. Through Ned's laconic observations, Carey creates a textured picture of Australian society when the British ruling class despised the Irish, and both the police and the justice system were thoroughly corrupt. Harassed, slandered, provoked and jailed with impunity, the Kellys, led by indomitable, amoral matriarch Ellen, believe they have no recourse but to break the law. Ned is initially reluctant; throughout his life, his criminal activities are an attempt to win his mother's love and approval. Ellen is a monster of selfishness and treachery. She betrays her son time and again, yet he adores her with Irish sentimentality and forfeits his chance to escape the country by pledging to surrender if the authorities will release her from jail. This is in essence an adventure saga, with numerous descriptions of the wild and forbidding Australian landscape, shocking surprises, coldhearted villains who hail from the top and the bottom of the social ladder and a tender love story. Carey (Booker Prize-winner Oscar and Lucinda) deserves to be lionized in his native land for this triumphant historical recreation, and he will undoubtedly win a worldwide readership for a novel that teems with energy, suspense and the true story of a memorable protagonist. (Jan. 16) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Whether it is possible to write the "true" history of anything in a work of fiction is an irony that underlies Carey's wonderful new novel. Ned Kelly grows up dirt poor in the 19th-century Australian outback. His father was remanded from British-controlled Ireland, and his mother's family are all crooks. Living conditions are primitive and abominable, and law enforcement is corrupt, serving only monied and personal interests. Though his mother apprentices him to the notorious highwayman Harry Power, Kelly retains a powerful sense of justice until an injustice done to him cannot be ignored. Leading his brother and two friends on a series of spectacular bank robberies, he evades the authorities for nearly two years and wins huge popular support. The narrative is composed as if it were a letter to Kelly's daughter, employing a style and argot that while always rich is sometimes incomprehensible to the American ear. Nevertheless, the novel is a tour de force akin to an American Western. Though Kelly may or may not have been the sterling character Carey makes him, his life has been turned into formidable fiction. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/00.]--Harold Augenbraum, Mercantile Lib., New York Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Not many outside of Australia have heard of Ned Kelly, the heavily mythologized bushranger (outlaw) who lived out his short 25 years in Victoria during the last half of the 19th century. Carey's True History means to change this, portraying Ned sympathetically as one fated to live hard and die young. Born into destitution, handed over to a notorious bushranger when barely in his teens, mistreated by authoritarian police, Kelly grew into the Down Under equivalent of a Jesse James or Robin Hood. He was hated and hunted by the wealthy and by law-enforcement establishment, but accepted and aided by the common folk. Carey tells Kelly's story via 13 "parcels" supposedly written by the young man himself to the infant daughter he'll never see so that she might "finally comprehend the injustice we poor Irish suffered." Since Carey's prose is consistent with the vernacular of an illiterate youth, the spelling and grammar leave much to be desired and the minimal punctuation can lead to momentary confusion, making it somewhat of a challenging read. Nevertheless, the simple yet penetrating depiction of a harsh life in harsh times, of betrayal and prejudice, of love and camaraderie is so affecting a tale that readers cannot resist being drawn in. "True" history it may not be, but historical fiction doesn't get much better than this.-Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
In a spectacular feat of literary ventriloquism, the Australian-born novelist Peter Carey invites the outlaw Ned Kelly to tell his story. He summons the rollicking, unschooled, hugely colorful voice of Australia's best-known underdog for a bravura book-length performance. Writing so convincingly in Ned's argot that his own elegantly phrased acknowledgments at the end of True History of the Kelly Gang seem starkly incongruous, the Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda invests Ned's account with all the makings of a swaggering adventure tale as well as a classic Western tragedy. The effect is triumphantly eclectic, as if Huck Finn and Shakespeare had joined forces to prettify the legend of Jesse James...a seamlessly imagined coming-of-age story set in wild country and wilder times. Though Ned Kelly died in 1880 just before his 26th birthday, he could not be more furiously alive.
New York Times
The form and style of the novel could hardly be more striking . . . Bristling with shafts of wit and poetic grace notes . . . Packed with incident, alive with comedy and pathos, True History of the Kelly Gang contains pretty much everything you could ask of a novel. It is an adjectival wonder.
New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
“In a spectacular feat of literary ventriloquism, the Australian-born novelist Peter Carey … summons the rollicking, unschooled, hugely colorful voice of Australia’s best-known underdog for a bravura book-length performance.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“As exciting as any classic western… a thrilling novel that touches on big themes without sacrificing narrative momentum. It’s also a highly compelling portrait of a man who believed that his actions were true to himself, if not to the letter of the law.” —The Globe and Mail
Read an Excerpt
TITLE: TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG
His Life until the Age of 12
National Bank letterhead. Almost certainly taken from the Euroa Branch of the National Bank in December 1878. There are 45 sheets of medium stock (8" 3 10" approx.) with stabholes near the top where at one time they were crudely bound. Heavily soiled.
Contains accounts of his early relations with police including an accusation of transvestism. Some recollections of the Quinn family and the move to the township of Avenel. A claim that his father was wrongly arrested for the theft of Murray’s heifer. A story explaining the origins of the sash presently held by the Benalla Historical Society. Death of John Kelly.
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.
God willing I shall live to see you read these words to witness your astonishment and see your dark eyes widen and your jaw drop when you finally comprehend the injustice we poor Irish suffered in this present age. How queer and foreign it must seem to you and all the coarse words and cruelty which I now relate are far away in ancient time.
Your grandfather were a quiet and secret man he had been ripped from his home in Tipperary and transported to the prisons of Van Diemen’s Land I do not know what was done to him he never spoke of it. When they had finished with their tortures they set him free and he crossed the sea to the colony of Victoria. He were by this time 30 yr. of age red headed and freckled with his eyes always slitted against the sun. My da had sworn an oath to evermore avoid the attentions of the law so when he saw the streets of Melbourne was crawling with policemen worse than flies he walked 28 mi. to the township of Donnybrook and then or soon thereafter he seen my mother. Ellen Quinn were 18 yr. old she were dark haired and slender the prettiest figure on a horse he ever saw but your grandma was like a snare laid out by God for Red Kelly. She were a Quinn and the police would never leave the Quinns alone.
My 1st memory is of Mother breaking eggs into a bowl and crying that Jimmy Quinn my 15 yr. old uncle were arrested by the traps. I don’t know where my daddy were that day nor my older sister Annie. I were 3 yr. old. While my mother cried I scraped the sweet yellow batter onto a spoon and ate it the roof were leaking above the camp oven each drop hissing as it hit.
My mother tipped the cake onto the muslin cloth and knotted it. Your Aunt Maggie were a baby so my mother wrapped her also then she carried both cake and baby out into the rain. I had no choice but follow up the hill how could I forget them puddles the colour of mustard the rain like needles in my eyes.
We arrived at the Beveridge Police Camp drenched to the bone and doubtless stank of poverty a strong odour about us like wet dogs and for this or other reasons we was excluded from the Sergeant's room. I remember sitting with my chilblained hands wedged beneath the door I could feel the lovely warmth of the fire on my fingertips. Yet when we was finally permitted
entry all my attention were taken not by the blazing fire but by a huge red jowled creature the Englishman who sat behind the desk. I knew not his name only that he were the most powerful man I ever saw and he might destroy my mother if he so desired.
Approach says he as if he was an altar.
My mother approached and I hurried beside her. She told the Englishman she had baked a cake for his prisoner Quinn and would be most obliged to deliver it because her husband were absent and she had butter to churn and pigs to feed.
No cake shall go to the prisoner said the trap I could smell his foreign spicy smell he had a handlebar moustache and his scalp were shining through his hair.
Said he No cake shall go to the prisoner without me inspecting it 1st and he waved his big soft white hand thus indicating my mother should place her basket on his desk. He untied the muslin his fingernails so clean they looked like they was washed in lye and to this day I can see them livid instruments as they broke my mother’s cake apart.
Tis not poverty I hate the mostnor the eternal grovellingbut the insults which grow on itwhich not even leeches can cure
I will lay a quid that you have already been told the story of how your grandma won her case in court against Bill Frost and then led wild gallops up and down the main street of Benalla. You will know she were never a coward but on this occasion she understood she must hold her tongue and so she wrapped the warm crumbs in the cloth and walked out into the rain. I
cried out to her but she did not hear so I followed her skirts across the muddy yard. At 1st I thought it an outhouse on whose door I found her hammering it come as a shock to realise my young uncle were locked inside. For the great offence of duffing a bullock with cancer of the eye he were interred in this earth floored slab hut which could not have measured more than 6 ft. 3 6 ft. and here my mother were forced to kneel in the mud and push the broken cake under the door the gap v. narrow perhaps 2 in. not sufficient for the purpose.
She cried God help us Jimmy what did we ever do to them that they should torture us like this?
My mother never wept but weep she did and I rushed and clung to her and kissed her but still she could not feel that I were there. Tears poured down her handsome face as she forced the muddy mess of cake and muslin underneath the door.
She cried I would kill the b-----ds if I were a man God help me. She used many rough expressions I will not write them here. It were eff this and ess that and she would blow their adjectival brains out.
These was frightening sentiments for a boy to hear his mamma speak but I did not know how set she were until 2 nights later when my father returned home and she said the exact same things again to him.
You don’t know what you’re talking about said he.
You are a coward she cried. I blocked my ears and buried my face into my floursack pillow but she would not give up and neither would my father turn against the law. I wish I had known my parents when they truly loved each other.
You will see in time your grandfather were a man of secrets and what he said and done was different things though for now it is enough to know my mother had one idea about my father and the police the opposite. She thought him Michael Meek. They knew him as a graduate of Van Diemen's Land and a criminal by birth and trade and marriage they was constantly
examining the brands on our stock or sifting through our flour for signs of larceny but they never found nothing except mouse manure they must have had a mighty craving for the taste.
Nor was your grandmother as unfriendly towards the police as you would expect if solely instructed by her testimony she might of wished to murder them but would not mind a little drink and joke before she done the deed. There was one Sergeant his name O'Neil my mother seemed to like him better than the rest. I am talking now of a later time I must have been 9 yr. of age for our sister Kate had just been born. Our father were away contracting and our small hut were more crowded than ever now there was 6 children all sleeping between the maze of patchwork curtains Mother hung to make up for the lack of walls. It were like living in a cupboard full of dresses.
Into this shadowy world Sgt O'Neil did come with queer white hair which he were always combing like a girl before a dance he were v. friendly to us children and on the night in question he brung me the gift of a pencil. At school we used the slates but I never touched a pencil and was most excited to smell the sweet pine and graphite as the Sergeant sharpened his gift he were very fatherly towards me and set me at one end of the table with a sheet of paper. My sister Annie were 1 yr. older she got nothing from O'Neil but thats another story.
I set to work to cover my paper with the letters of the alphabet. My mother sat at the other end of the table with the Sgt and when he produced his silver flask I paid no more attention than I did to Annie & Jem & Maggie & Dan. After I made each letter as a capital I set to do the smaller ones such were my concentration that when my mother spoke her voice seemed very far away.
Get out of my house.
I looked up to discover Sergeant O'Neil with his hand to his cheek I suppose she must of slapped him for his countenance were turned v. red.
Get out my mother shrieked she had the Irish temper we was accustomed to it.
Ellen you calm yourself you know I never meant nothing in the least improper.
Eff off my mother cried.
The policeman’s voice took a sterner character. Ellen said he you must not use such language to a police officer.
That were a red rag to my mother she uncoiled herself from her seat. You effing mongrel she cried her voice louder again. You wouldnt say that if my husband were not gone contracting.
I will issue one more warning Mrs Kelly.
At this my mother snatched up the Sergeant’s teacup and threw the contents onto the earthen floor. Arrest me she cried arrest me you coward.
Baby Kate woke crying then. Jem were 4 yr. old sitting on the floor playing knuckles but when the brandy splashed beside him he let the bones lie quiet. Of a different disposition I begun to move towards my mother.
Did you hear your mother call me a coward old chap?
I would not betray her I walked round the table and stood next to her. Said he You was busy writing Ned?
I took my mother’s hand and she put her arm around my shoulder.
You are a scholar aint it he asked me.
I said I were.
Then you must know about the history of cowards. I were confused I shook my head.
Next O'Neil was bouncing to his feet and showing the full hard stretch of his policeman’s boots said he Let me educate you young man. No said my mother her manner now completely changed. Please no.
A moment earlier O'Neil had a stiff and worried air but now there was a dainty sort of prance about him. O yes said he all children should know their history indeed it is quite essential.
My mother wrenched her hand from mine and reached out but the Ulsterman ducked behind the 1st set of curtains and emerged to prowl in and out and around our family he even patted little Dan upon his silky head. My mother were afraid her face was pale and frozen. Please Kevin.
But O'Neil was telling us his story we had to quiet to listen to him he had the gift. It were a story of a man from Tipperary named only A Certain Man or This Person Who I Will Not Name. He said A Certain Man had a grudge against a farmer for lawfully evicting his tenant and This Person etc. conspired with his mates to kill the farmer.
I’m sorry said my mother I already apologised.
Sgt O'Neil made a mocking bow continuing his story without relent telling how This Certain Man did 1st write a threatening letter to the landlord. When the landlord ignored the letter and evicted the tenant This Certain Man called a select meeting of his allies to a chapel in the dead of night where they drank whisky from the Holy Goblet and swore upon the Holy Book then he said to them Brothers for we are all brothers sworn upon all thats blessed and Holy. Brothers are you ready in the name of God to fulfil your oaths? They said they was they swore it and when they done their blasphemy they descended upon the farmer’s house with pikes and faggots burning.
Sergeant O'Neil seemed much affected by his own story his voice grew loud he said the farmer’s children screamed for mercy at the windows but the men set their home alight and those who escaped they piked to death there was mothers and babes in arms the Sgt would not spare us either he painted the outrage in every detail we children were all silent open mouthed not only at the horror of the crime but also the arrest of the Guilty Parties and the treachery of This Certain Man who betrayed all he had drawn into his conspiracy. The accomplices was hanged by the neck until dead and the Ulsterman let us imagine how this might be he did not conceal the particulars.
What happened then he asked we could not answer nor speak nor did we wish to hear.
This Certain Man kept his life he were transported to Van Diemen's Land. And with that Sergeant O'Neil strode out our door into the night.
Mother said nothing further she did not move not even when we heard the policeman's mare cantering along the dark road up the hill to Beveridge I asked her what was meant by This Certain Man and she give me such a clip across the ears I never asked again. In time I understood it were my own father that was referred to.
The memory of the policeman's words lay inside me like the egg of a liver fluke and while I went about my growing up this slander wormed deeper and deeper into my heart and there grew fat.
Sergeant O’Neil had filled my boy’s imagination with thoughts that would breed like maggots on a summer day you would think his victory complete but he begun to increase his harassment of my father rousing him from bed when he were drunk or fast asleep he also needled and teased me whenever he seen me in the street.
He would mock the way I dressed my lack of shoes and coats. I were all knees and elbows and shy of any comment I couldnt walk past the Police Camp with my friends without him calling out some insult. I pretended to be amused for I would not give him the satisfaction of seeing blood.
It were during Sgt O’Neil’s hateful reign we heard Mr Russell of Foster Downs Station was to sell off a great mob of bullocks and cows in calf also a famous bull he was said to have brought from England for 500 quid. It were a much bigger event than we was accustomed to in Beveridge just a straggly village on a difficult hill reviled by all the bullockies between Melbourne and the Murray River. 1/2 way up the hill were a pub and blacksmith and portable lockup then farther west a Catholic school. That hill were too much effort even for the bitter winds which turned around and come howling back towards our hut below. West of the road the water were salt. Our side had good water but it were still known as Pleurisy Plains. No one ever come to Beveridge for their health.
The sale changed all that and suddenly there was squatters and stock agents come to visit even a veterinarian from Melbourne all these strangers set up camp beside the swamp between our place and the hill. There was gaffing & flash talk & grog drinking & galloping up & down the Melbourne road it were good as a circus to us boys to hang about the boggy crossing and see the fancy riding. Day by day Jem and me run the long way to school to see what new tents were set up at the swamp. We was on tenterhooks awaiting the beasts but it were not until dusk on the day before the Auction we heard that particular mournful bellowing on the wind it were a mob of cattle being driven over a track they did not know.
I told Jem I was going to meet them.
We wasnt finished tending to the pigs and chooks we did not care our feet was bare the ground were hard and rocky though we was used to it and run right through the Indian corn. Said Jem We’ll be whipped.
I don’t care.
I don’t care neither.
We had just gained the swamp bulrushes when the beasts come into view flooding down the smooth green hill of Beveridge like a breaking wave it were the gleaming wealth of all the nations pouring down towards us and the water. Cor look at them blacks said Jem.
Of the 7 stockmen 5 was blackfellows they rode ahead of the coming storm with flash red scarves round their necks and elastic sided boots upon their feet. Said Jem Look at them boots.
Damn them I said. Yes damn them said Jem we was raised to think the blacks the lowest of the low but they had boots not us and we damned and double damned them as we run. Soon we gained the rutted ruined Melbourne road where we passed Patchy Moran he were 16 yr. old rawboned and lanky but we was faster any day.
Wait you little b––––rs.
But we wouldnt wait for Patchy or no one else splashing through Boggy Crossing to the splintery top rail of the yard. Moran made no comment on our victory but lit himself a cigarette and the leftover beard of tobacco fell in glowing cinders to the earth. Look at them effing niggers.
We already seen them.
I heard the rattle of a bridle and turned to see my father’s tormentor had ridden up behind us Sgt O’Neil had his stirrup leathers so long the iron could be held only with the tip of the toes it were the English fashion. His horse was 17 hands he thought himself high and mighty but if you had give any of us boys a pony we would of left him in the dust.
Patchy Moran said Look at them niggers Sergeant did you see their adjectival boots how much would that cost do you reckon Sir boots like that?
O’Neil did not answer but leaned forward in his saddle looking down at me beneath the visor of his shako his eyes as watery as a jar of gin. Ah young Kelly he said.
Hello Sergeant said I so accustomed to his teasing that I thought Moran’s remark about the blackfellows’ boots would lead to comments about my own bare feet. Said I thats a mighty bull they got by Jove we heard he was worth 500 quid.
Said O’Neil I just saw your father. I knew from his lazy drawl he had something worse than shoes to hurt me with. He said I just seen Red Kelly galloping across Horan’s paddocks dressed like a woman can you picture that now?
I couldnt see the policeman’s expression in the failing light but he spoke so very conversationally. Patchy Moran laughed but stopped midbreath I looked towards poor little Jem he sat on the rail staring grimly at the ground his brow furrowed in a torture of confusion and my friends gone v. quiet around me.
Pull the other one Sergeant.
Your father was seen by Mr McClusky and Mr Willett and myself he was wearing a dress with roses on its hem can you ever imagine such a thing?
Not me but you can Sergeant its the very thing you just done.
You watch your lip young fellow do you hear? When your father saw us he galloped away down the north face of Big Hill. He can ride I grant him that but do you know why he would go that way?
Oh said the Sergeant he was off to be serviced by his husband I suppose.
I leapt upon his high armoured boot I tried to twist him off his saddle but he only laughed and swung his horse around so I was almost crushed against the fence.
Thus were the great day destroyed. I told Patchy Moran I did not come to see a nigger show Jem said he did not want to see one neither. We walked home together through the dark. We did not say much but was very melancholic. She’ll strop us won’t she Ned?
No she won’t.
But of course our mother had the razor strop laid out ready on the table she hit my hand 3 times and Jem once. We never told her what O’Neil had said.
I doubt I had the courage to repeat O’Neil’s slander to my father but I were anyway denied the opportunity for he had departed once again to shear the fat merino sheep for Mr Henry Buckley of Gnawarra Station. As it were spring he should of been engaged on his own land but couldnt afford it and on the way to Gnawarra he nearly died.
A vicious Sydney black by the name of Warragul had gotten a mob together made of the remnants of different tribes my father had done nothing against Warragul but when he arrived at the Murray River near Barnawatha a shower of spears sailed out of the bush and struck his donkey dead beneath him. My father dragged his carbine from its saddle holster and by careful use of his remaining powder were able to keep Warragul’s mob at bay until dark. Then he retreated into an abandoned hut he barricaded the door and windows and so imagined himself safe but in the early hours of the morning he woke.
The roof were on fire and the hut surrounded by shouting savages.
He used the last of his powder to shoot into the faces of blackfellows who was peering through the gaps between the logs but when the powder were gone he had nothing more to look forward to than death and begun to say his prayers while the blacks thrust their spears through the gaps. The roof were already burning falling in lumps when Father paused from praying long enough to realise the spears was only entering from the front. He removed the barricade from the rear window and with the blacks keeping watch on one side of his funeral pyre he made his way out the downwind side thereafter hiding in a hollow log for 2 days before he were discovered by Mr Henry Buckley himself and thus finally delivered to Gnawarra.
At the time my father had been battling for his very life Sergeant O’Neil’s slander spread about the Catholic school the source of this contagion being Patchy Moran.
I cautioned him. You say that one more time I’ll whip you.
Patchy Moran were a good foot taller his voice broken like a man. Said he You are an adjectival tinker you can’t give me orders.
And with that he punched me in the temple so I fell.
Regaining my feet I faced him again he hit me hard enough to push the pudding out of me. I were bent over wheezing to get my wind back he called out I were a sissy and the son of a sissy. He seemed a giant all hair and pimples I thought he soon would kill me but I closed with him on the barren ground beneath the peppercorn tree and then by skill or luck I got round his dirty neck and pulled him to the ground. How he hollered to be brung down how he kicked & bucked & twisted rolling me amongst the tree roots and the gravel. I felt a red hot sting on my back and rolled him over. There were a bull ant also fastened to his pimply neck.
I wouldnt let him go not even when I felt a 2nd bite myself I hope you may live your life without a bull ant bite for it is worse than any wasp or bee. Patchy howled in my arms cursing and pleading but I held his shoulders to the earth as he thrashed and drove his tormentors into greater fury still.
Take it back.
He bawled the snot run down his lip.
Take it back.
He said he would not take it back but in the end he couldnt tolerate the pain he cried Damn you damn your eyes I take it back. Brother Hearn heard his blasphemies so did 16 other scholars standing by the schoolhouse door observing us. No one said nothing they stood v. quiet and watched Patchy Moran rip off his shirt and britches the girls all saw his private skin.
I were soon ill from my great number of bites but no one said no more about my father from that time.
I thought my problems over and I once again imagined there were never a better place on earth than where I lived at Pleurisy Plains. I could not conceive a better soil or prettier view or trees that did not grow crooked in the winds. I were often in the swamp it were a world entire with eels and bird eggs and tiger snakes we tried to race them along the Melbourne
road. Then one mild and dewy morning I went out to find some worms and discovered my younger sister Maggie seated on a cairn of them brown pitted rocks the ancient volcanoes had throwed around the plains of Beveridge. Our father often had us busy tidying the earth in this manner. This particular pile of rocks was in a thistlepatch near our back door and Maggie were using it as a throne while she squeezed milk from the thistles onto her warts. She asked would I please squeeze some on a difficult place behind her elbow.
I were very fond of Maggie she were always my favourite sister as true and steady as a red gum plank. As I set down my worms and dripped the white sap over her warts she warned she had found something I would not like.
You’ll have to move them rocks.
I already moved them once.
You better do it again.
There were no more than 8 rocks Maggie helped me roll them to one side and I discovered the freshly broken earth beneath.
Its something dead.
It aint nothing dead.
From down amongst the thistles she produced an old gooseneck shovel with a broken handle.
I took it from her hand and dug until I uncovered something hard and black it were 3 ft. 3 2 ft. It were also deep so I levered and jemmied and soon dragged a battered tin trunk out to the light of day. It were inside that trunk I found the thing I wish I never saw.
It were a woman’s dress v. soiled along the hem the roses was exactly as Sgt O’Neil had said. There was also masks made of red paint and feather I hardly seen them it were the dress that made my stomach knot a mighty anger come upon me.
I heard our sister Annie calling and I whispered I would kill Maggie if ever she mentioned what we seen. Her dark little eyes welled up with tears.
Annie were demanding I bring firewood she come down the path in a mighty fret with her thin shoulders hunched forward and her hands upon her hips. If youse don’t come now you’ll get no adjectival dinner.
I split the wood all right but then carried it back to the thistlepatch and made a fireplace from the rocks.
What are you doing? You can’t do that you know it aint permitted.
Just the same she give me the matches I asked for. She were a worrywart she retreated back to the doorway while I burned the horrid contents of the trunk. By the time she come back I were poking the last bits of dress into the flames.
She asked me what I were destroying but all us children had suffered from O’Neil’s story and she knew the answer to her question well enough.
Said Annie You better bury that trunk. Her face were pinched her mouth set with worry she were only 11 yr. old but she must of already saw her future it were written on her face for all to see.
A 2nd time she ordered me to hide the trunk so I dragged it down the back and shoved it under the lower rail of the horse yard.
You can’t do that.
I pulled the trunk through all the manure into the middle of the yard.
You’ll get the strop said she.
I never doubted it would be worse than that and when our father come ambling up the track 3 days later I awaited my thrashing it were as sure as eggs turn into chickens.
At 1st he didnt see the trunk he were surveying his crop of Indian corn doubtless pleased he had not been speared or burned and had money in his pocket. But finally he saw his broken secret lying in the air and while the little children all run around crying for him to dismount he stared silently down at the blackened trunk his eyes small inside their puffy lids.
Where’s your ma?
Baby Kate took ill she’s gone to Wallan to the Doctor.
My father dismounted and then carried his saddle and bags into the hut I were waiting by the door to get my punishment but he never even looked at me. After a little while he gone up the pub.
I lost my own father from a secret he might as well been snatched by a roiling river fallen from a ravine I lost him from my heart so long I cannot even now properly make the place for him that he deserves. Forever after I unearthed his trunk I pictured him with his broad red beard his strong arms his freckled skin all his manly features buttoned up inside that cursed dress.
Up to that point I had been his shadow never losing a chance to be with him. In the bush he taught the knots I use to tie my blanket to my saddle Ds also the way I stand to use a carpenter’s plane and the trick of catching fish with a bush fly and a strip of greenhide these things are like the dark marks made in the rings of great trees locked forever in my daily self.
I don’t know if my mother realised what were hidden in the trunk she never said nothing and it were left to lie in the middle of the dusty yard and when it rained the horses drank from it.
A rich man driving his buggy past our home might see the tin trunk in the yard and the pumpkins growing on the skillion roof but he would never imagine all my father’s issue the great number of us packed behind the curtains breathing the same air snoring farting blind and deaf to each other as a newborn litter.
I had long taught myself to be deaf to my parents’ private business but after digging up that trunk I would stay awake at night listening to my mother and my father talking.
I learned not a thing about the dress I discovered it were land my parents whispered about and in particular the Duffy Land Act of 1862 it gave a man or widow the right to select a block between 50 and 640 acres for £1 per acre part payable on selection the rest over 8 yr. My mother were for it but my father were against it he said the great Charles Gavan Duffy was a
well intentioned idiot leading poor men into debt and lifelong labour. He were correct as it happened but when my mother abused my da for cowardice the terrible turmoil in my heart were somehow soothed. Only a simpleton she said would try to farm 20 acres like my da were doing. I thought yes you must be a mighty fool.
This debate about the Land Act were life or death and my mother enlisted her family who was presently our neighbours but in the midst of buying land far away in the North East.
The Quinns was purchasing 1,000 acres at Glenmore on the King River they was Irish and therefore drunk with land and fancy horses all the old hardships soon to be forgotten. The Quinn women come visiting with soda bread and surveyor’s maps the men was tall and reckless they cursed and sang they fought anyone they did not like and rode thoroughbreds they could not afford to buy. My uncle Jimmy Quinn were a man by now there were a dreadful wildness in his eyes like a horse that has been tortured. The Quinns would of tossed my father down the well if they had seen the dress but they chivvied and joked and finally prevailed upon him to sell everything he owned in Beveridge he got a total of £80.
But when my da finally had the cash put in his hand the thought of giving the government so large a sum were more than he could bear and when the new owners arrived to take possession he borrowed a cart and shifted us to rented land on the outskirts of the township of Avenel. So while my mother’s brothers and sisters went on to farm 1,000 virgin acres at Glenmore my father transported us 60 mi. to a district of English snobs and there to my mother’s great outrage he slowly pissed away the 80 quid on rent and booze. I were his flesh and he must of felt me draw further away but he were proud and did not try to win me back.
The question of our lost opportunity were now always present my mother could not leave it alone my father would sit solid in his chair and quietly rub the belly of his big black cat. I am thinking now of one night in particular when he broke his silence.
Your family arent bad fellows said he at last.
If you’re planning to speak ill of them you can stop right there.
Oh I aint got nothing against them personal.
Of course not they was always good to you.
I’m sure the land will do the job. Them rocks aint nothing but the land can’t touch this land Ellen.
And us with no meat but the adjectival possums.
We aint got beef its true.
Not even mutton.
But do you notice we aint got no police? Now thats an interesting thing I wonder why that is do you imagine your family is as lucky up at Glenmore?
Oh no not this again.
Well you must agree the Quinns attract the traps as surely as rabbit guts will bring the flies.
My mother shrieked a plate or cup were dashed against the wall.
Well Ellen said he I know you’re very low about your farm but I would rather die than go to prison.
You great galoot no one wants to put you in prison.
So you say.
No one she cried her voice rising. Are you mad?
And why was the traps always visiting us do you imagine?
You have been a free man 15 yr. they don’t want you back again.
The Quinns bring attention its the truth.
O you adjectival worm.
My mother were now sobbing Maggie also I could hear her little rabbit noises on the far side of the curtain. Then my mother said my father would rather his children starve than take a risk and beside me Jem pulled his pillow tight across his ears.
The land were very good at Avenel but there were a drought and nothing flourished there but misery I were the oldest son I thought it time to earn my place.
There were no dam or spring upon our property each day I took the cows to water them at Hughes Creek. In a good year it would of made a pretty picture but in the drought that creek were no more than a chain of sandy waterholes. It were across this dry river bed that Mr Murray’s heifer calf come calling out my name I were very hungry when I heard her and knew what I must do. I had never killed nothing bigger than a rooster but when I saw the long line of the heifer’s crop above the blackberries I knew I could not be afraid of nothing.
From the Hardcover edition.