True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang

4.1 17
by Peter Carey

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Winner of the 2001 Booker Prize

Out of nineteenth-century Australia rides a hero of his people and a man for all nations, in this masterpiece by the Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs. Exhilarating, hilarious, panoramic, and immediately engrossing, it is also—at a distance of many thousand miles and moreSee more details below


Winner of the 2001 Booker Prize

Out of nineteenth-century Australia rides a hero of his people and a man for all nations, in this masterpiece by the Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs. Exhilarating, hilarious, panoramic, and immediately engrossing, it is also—at a distance of many thousand miles and more than a century—a Great American Novel.

This is Ned Kelly's true confession, in his own words and written on the run for an infant daughter he has never seen. To the authorities, this son of dirt-poor Irish immigrants was a born thief and, ultimately, a cold-blooded murderer; to most other Australians, he was a scapegoat and patriot persecuted by "English" landlords and their agents.

With his brothers and two friends, Kelly eluded a massive police manhunt for twenty months, living by his wits and strong heart, supplementing his bushwhacking skills with ingenious bank robberies while enjoying the support of most everyone not in uniform. He declined to flee overseas when he could, bound to win his jailed mother's freedom by any means possible, including his own surrender. In the end, however, she served out her sentence in the same Melbourne prison where, in 1880, her son was hanged.

Still his country's most powerful legend, Ned Kelly is here chiefly a man in full: devoted son, loving husband, fretful father, and loyal friend, now speaking as if from the grave. With this mythic outlaw and the story of his mighty travails and exploits, and with all the force of a classic Western, Peter Carey has breathed life into a historical figure who transcends all borders and embodies tragedy,perseverance, and freedom.

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Editorial Reviews

Jaime James
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 ambiguous—he 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, gossip—all 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.
—Jeff Ousborne

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.
Library Journal
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.
Janet Maslin
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
Anthony Quinn
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

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
First American Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.15(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.82(d)

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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.

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