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 more…  See 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
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.

--Frances Fuoco

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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)

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 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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True History of the Kelly Gang 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ned Kelley and his gang are a powerful myth in Australia. In the 1870s Ned Kelley an Irish youth reluctantly takes up a life of crime and becomes in effect a huge media story. A Robin Hood type character. He finds himself in the middle of the culture clash and resentments caused by the cruel and discriminatory English rulers Vs the downtrodden Irish bush farmers. In a country that was founded by convicts one wonders why Kelley takes on such a mythic statue. This book, a novel, goes a long ways to offer up motive for Kelley in Australia¿s ruthless history of class warfare. Carey has taken a 50 page letter written by the real Kelley with it¿s long run on sentences, no commas, change of subject mid sentence and incorporated this style into his fictional Kelley¿s voice. The book's structure is the discovery of many other parcels of text written (Chapters) all written in the first person by our fictional Kelley, all in this fast paced run on style without punctuation. A few years ago I tried to read the book and just found it¿s lack of punctuation to difficult to keep up with. I¿m not a patient enough reader to take on the reading text written in this fashion. I put the book down in frustration. Then recently I discovered, in the Library, a fully unabridged audio version on CDs. I listened to the first 200 pages on a recent round trip drive to Las Vegas. The reader, Gianfranco Negroponte does a marvelous job of reading, inserting the commas; the dialog comes alive with his performance, as does Ned Kelley¿s voice. The reading has the feel your sitting around the campfire hearing a tall tale told by the practitioner. I finished listening to the tapes while following along with the book's text and some sections I just read without the audio. But it was the audio translation I am reviewing here and recommending to you. A marvelous way to enjoy what I found to be an awkward book to read. The recording also has an interesting hour-long interview with Peter Carey on the last CD, well worth a listen as he explains why he structured the book the way he did, and how much of the story he fictionalized (quite a bit actually).
MilanoWL More than 1 year ago
Peter Carey will win a pulitzer in the next 10 years. The man can weave a tale and his character development and understanding of humanity is almost hemingwayesque.
SSnugglebunny More than 1 year ago
Ned Kelly starts off as any one would think a kid would. Young, reckless, and free to do what he wishes in life. In the beginning, he tells you what is happening, but he is speaking to his daughter. Each letter held a part of his life and how it was hard for him and his family to live. It seems in the story, troubled and Ned go together just like a puzzle. He tries to be like a man, even after his father¿s death. With each letter, you travel deeper into his mind and life, until the end.

I was rather pleased with this story. It kept me on my guard when you would not think possible. You never knew if he was lying, even if he said he would not lie in the beginning of the novel. I had a little troubled reading the story, for Ned has ¿troubled¿ with his grammar. The word year was shortened to yr. and other words seemed to form to his speak he spoke. I do recommended this book to other that enjoy a blast from the past and maybe you might find some dirt on the bottom of your shoes from the story its self, for that¿s how far into the book I felt.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had never heard of Ned Kelly before Peter Carey's book. But, from the very first line, Ned Kelly comes vividly to life. And, though it seems so far removed from the comfort most of us have today, it's fascinating and real. What he's striving for, acceptance, a better life, love, family ties, something to leave behind after, are all universal. His language, especially, is so entertaining, I would recommend this book just on that. I loved it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a long-time student of Ned Kelly as historical personage, it was with great trepidation that I read this book; knowing how historical novels hardly ever grasp the 'meaning' of a person or an event. All to often they seem to add invented dialouge to a well-known story and HOPE to capitalize on the actual story to carry the book thru. Here we have what a historical novel SHOULD be. As Kelly appeared thru the morning mist that June day in 1880 to battle the police, so he has risen up again and again to lumber thru the consciousness of whoever has the good fortune to stumble onto his tale, for, right or wrong, he's IS a powerful tale. But it is the concept behind this novel that really struck me as unique. Here was Kelly the son, the man, the lover, and the outlaw, and yet the 'meaning' comes down to Kelly the father. And it is here that, as a divocred father seperated from MY kids, the real power and tragedy of Carey's novel strikes home: the desire of people, regardless of gender or social status and standing, to have our voices heard and our tale told. Here, for once, in this wonderfully imagined way, IS (to use a cliche) 'The man behind the myth.' What is so wonderful is that Kelly has survived as a historical character, and he has appeared as subject for fine art (The Nolan paintings), as cinematic subject matter numerous times, and, now, as a subject that has long deserved and finally received his worthy status as subject fit for fine literature. Bravo to Peter Carey for slipping into Kelly's armor
harstan More than 1 year ago
Though over a century has passed since the Australian authorities hanged him, Ned Kelly retains a mythical hold on the minds of individuals who romanticize a criminal with an honorable moral fiber. In 1879-1880, Kelly and his cohorts elude the police for about twenty months, desperately doing daring deeds that capture the soul of a nation. Yet in the end he fails to achieve his goal of winning the approval of his mother, but Ellen betrayed her family and Ned whenever it was convenient.

This is an exciting biographical fiction that brings to life a country and its people in the late nineteenth century. Although one-sided by turning Kelly into a glamorous heroic victim of society and his family, he retains all the allure that makes him an epic hero. The story line is well written and grips the reader from start to finish with the action adventure of a Zane Gray western tale. Award winning Peter Carey shows why he is one of the best authors with this uncanny novel that brings forth a legendary man.

Harriet Klausner

CR-Buell More than 1 year ago
Here is the story of Ned Kelly, as told in his own words. Or at least that is the novel's conceit. In True History of the Kelly Gang Peter Carey channels Australia's most famous outlaw, relating his tale in powerfully rich, though semi-literate prose. Anyone who's familiar with Ned Kelly's legend (don't worry, you don't need to know anything about Ned Kelly to enjoy the novel) will expect this book to be largely about the so-called Kelly Outbreak, but that is not the case. In fact we don't reach the Kelly Outbreak until about 2/3 of the way through the novel. Instead we are treated mostly to Kelly's early years, his family's struggles to eke out an existence, and all the injustices which would make Kelly the man he later became. Toward the end of the book a character asks if Australians have no one better to look up to than a horse thief. Accurate account or not this novel vividly describes why we tend to romanticize murderers and thieves like Ned Kelly or Billy the Kid; why even in their own time outlaws like these were seen by many of the common people as heroes rather than villains. Whatever their motivations for doing so they stood up against the agents of injustice; the police and magistrates who applied the law however they saw fit, the rich landowners and bankers who took whatever they wanted without fear of reprisal. All Ned Kelly ever wanted was for his voice to be heard, but no one was willing to listen. I've seen some complaints about the prose in this book, and that baffles me a bit. As I said earlier this novel is written in Kelly's own voice, complete with all the run on sentences and errors in grammar you might expect from an uneducated man in the late 19th century. While I admit that the prose takes some getting used to (after 5 or 6 pages you should have little problem with it), it's really the prose which elevates this novel to something more than just another retelling of the Kelly legend.
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