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.
Read an Excerpt
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
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
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
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
Ellen you calm yourself you know I never meant nothing in the least
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
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
What happened then he asked we could not answer nor speak nor did we wish
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.