True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2000) 352 p.

Although Ned Kelly is one of Australia’s enduring folk heroes, I previously knew nothing more about him than a few stereotypes and simplicities still lurking in my brain from my primary school days, just like Captain Cook and the Eureka Stockade and Simpson’s donkey. (There was also Ned, a comedy that errs too far towards slapstick and toilet humour, but nonetheless also contains a good deal of genuine wit.) Sometime in my days of contrary adolescent authoritarianism I concluded that Ned Kelly, despite his folk hero status, was a thief and therefore a bad person.

True History of the Kelly Gang turned me around somewhat. I know it’s just fiction, but it’s well-researched fiction that seems to ring true to real life. Most of it is told from the perspective of Ned Kelly himself, in the form of a memoir he is writing to his (fictional) child, and Carey has instilled him with a wonderful narrative voice: lacking commas, expletives censored out, a general rolling conversational style that I couldn’t help but hear in an Irish accent. The story is an account of Ned’s life all the way from his childhood to his famous last stand at Glenrowan, and explains how and why he became the man he did.

Ned Kelly, like many settlers in 19th century Australia, was Irish. The upper class – the landowners, the magistrates, the governors and the police – were largely English. From the very early days of his life, Ned’s family was abused and oppressed and tormented, as were his friends and neighbours, the conflicts of the old country exported to the new. This was crucial; Ned quite explicitly considered himself to be a political rebel, rising up against the English ruling class, wanting nothing more than land and freedom for himself and his family.

It is, of course, a novel, but the one real surviving piece of Kelly’s writing – the Jerilderie letter – outlines the same motives and desires. Furthermore, when he was captured at Glenrowan, he was in possession of a document outlining a proposed declaration of a republic in north-eastern Victoria. As somebody who is both Irish and republican, I find my sympathies leaning towards Kelly. He was still, of course, a thief and a killer, and not somebody whom I’d like to share a milkshake with, but I understand now why many Australians revere him.

I found it particularly interesting to read this directly after Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Towards the end of True History, a character opposed to the Kelly legend says:

What is it about we Australians, eh? he demanded. What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse-thief and a murderer?

I’ve sold my copy of Zinn’s book, so I can’t quote directly, but in the interview towards the back he talks about how we shouldn’t always look to great leaders and heroes – the Lincolns, the Churchills, the Roosevelts – but should instead rely on ourselves, the people, to pull us through harsh times. Ned Kelly is obviously a hero and an icon as well, but he’s about as close to a hero of the people as you could ever get.

So, the book taught me a lot about Ned Kelly and changed my attitude towards him. Is it a good book? Yes. Not a fantastic book, and another Booker-winner that must have been the product of a slow year (like The Blind Assassin), but nonetheless a solid piece of Australian literature and something I’m glad to have read.

Incidentally, my copy was published in the United States, and the blurb makes this idiotic statement:

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.

How? How is this Australian novel about an Australian historical figure written by an Australian and set in Australia even remotely a “Great American Novel?” Either the publisher didn’t think Americans would read a book that wasn’t somehow related to America, or Americans really won’t read a book unless it’s somehow related to America. Both are depressing.

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