Peter Carey: True History of the Kelly Gang
This novel garnered loads of praise, though I am not sure why. My memories of Ned Kelly are the Tony Richardson film, starring Mick Jagger and Sidney Nolan’s paintings of Kelly. Carey has chosen to tell the story from Kelly’s point of view, with the text being an alleged manuscript of his story written by Kelly himself.
Carey seems to me to have three aims in this book. Firstly, he simply wishes to pay tribute to the one truly mythical character of Australia (I am deliberately not counting a few explorers, sports heroes and entertainers). This story paints a picture of Kelly the man but shows how the legend arose. Secondly, he seeks to show how badly treated the Irish immigrants were by the English who were already there. The message, presumably, should not be lost on today’s Australians and their treatment of recent immigrants. Finally, he wishes to celebrate Australia’s landscape – not the landscape of Ayers Rock and the Great Barrier Reef but of the interior, which he does very effectively.
Most of the book is about the life of Kelly and his family before the exploits which made him famous. Kelly’s family, as poor Irish immigrants, had a rotten deal, particularly from the well-to-do landowners and the police. His mother, whom he adored, struggled hard to make a living for the family, particularly after her husband died. She apprenticed Kelly (without his knowledge) to Harry Power, a bushranger, recently released from prison, and Mrs. Kelly’s part-time lover. Kelly travelled around with Power, not always happily, as they committed a variety of essentially minor crimes. But Power was betrayed (Kelly took the blame but was not responsible) and Kelly again helped his mother on their land, till she took up with an American immigrant, George King.
It is not till nearly the end that Kelly started to carry out the exploits for which he is famous. He had tried to earn an honest living but he and his family were harassed by the rich and by the police. It was a police officer – Fitzgerald – that precipitated his crime spree. Fitzgerald was interested in Kelly’s sister and when he went too far with her, Mrs. Kelly hit him. He pulled out his gun and Kelly shot it out of his hand. Kelly threatened to kill him but he promised to say nothing if his life was spared. Of course, he did tell and soon the police were after Kelly, his brother and his friends. Their crime spree did take place but they were soon caught and Kelly hanged, a martyr and a folk legend. Maybe Carey does demystify the legend somewhat and maybe he does tell a compelling story but I prefer his earlier work.
First published 2000 by The University of Queensland Press