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THE IRONCLAD OUTLAW
True History of the Kelly Gang - Peter Carey
Member Name: Mauri
True History of the Kelly Gang - Peter Carey
Advantages: Fascinating story, interesting style
Disadvantages: Initially a little hard to get into
Peter Carey is a Booker prizewinning author who has in the past taken on historical fiction with some panache. He has always included characters with various eccentricities in his stories from his early 'Oscar and Lucinda' to his later Dickensian parody 'Jack Maggs'. In the 'True History of the Kelly Gang' he has used a mixture of historical fact and literary fiction to show us one version of a potential truth surrounding the short, violent but fascinating life of Ned Kelly. In a similar way to the earlier 'Jack Maggs' Carey tries to uncover what lies behind the known story of a famous character, in the case of Maggs that was a fictional character Magwitch from Dickens' 'Great Expectations', in this book Ned Kelly is a real historical figure but details of his life is still a matter of much debate. However while in Jack Maggs the reader fails to relate or sympathise with the character in the case of Ned Kelly you can't help to be charmed by his honesty and courage and thus almost from the outset you are rooting for him.
Each chapter takes the form of a long letter written by Ned Kelly to his daughter and chronicles his life from a small 12 year old boy growing up on his parents poverty stricken tenant farm to his life as a bushranger and the most infamous outlaw of his time when he was still only in his mid twenties. Having done some research on Ned Kelly's life since reading the book I discovered to my surprise that Kelly did indeed write letters describing his life and justifying his life of crime as a consequence of the brutality and outrageous discrimination by the mainly English protestant authorities and police towards the poor mainly catholic Irish migrants like the Kelly's. One famous letter that Kelly sent to the local Member of Parliament to explain his actions and appeal for justice was initially suppressed and was only eventually published in a Melbourne newspaper in the 1930's over 70's years after it was written. Such was the fear that the authorities had of giving Kelly a voice and increasing even further his support amongst the ordinary people.
Carey has tried to tell Kelly's story in the outlaw's own voice. The letters are written with little or no punctuation and include slang and dialect of the period. This provide the narrative with an authentic voice but I must admit that initially I found the style, especially the lack of punctuation difficult to follow, often the meaning of a sentence wasn't at all clear and needed re-reading. Very quickly I found if I read the book in large chunks, the writing develops its own rhythm and despite the lack of grammar becomes eloquent in its own way. What comes across from the writing is rather unexpected, Ned Kelly is portrayed as a very sympathetic character, always trying to make the best of his life and trying to protect his family. He is at heart a noble soul with a strong moral compass and yet despite his best attempt he is inextricably pulled into a life or crime and murder. The events detailed in Kelly's letter are mostly factually accurate, although they have been portrayed from Kelly point of view and thus are not unbiased. Even so there is enough historical evidence to suggest that the life of the poor Irish underclass in Victorian Australia was not an easy one. They were treated with utter contempt by the police and had few if any rights. You could as Carey does make a very good case for Kelly not having any other choice but to become an outlaw.
There are some fascinating details in the story that really bring to life the hardship experienced by the poor migrants at the time. Kelly and his family never had any shoes to wear and often went without food. The ramshackle huts they lived in were open to the elements and often families of six or seven lived in a single living space partitioned were possible with old blankets or sheets hanging from the ceiling to make some private space. One of the strongest characters in the story is Ned's mother Ellen who starts of as strikingly beautiful woman in her early twenties but through a succession of tragedies and disastrous choices in men, as well as seeming to be in a almost constant state of pregnancy for most of her life, ends up being broken in spirit and an aged well before her time, at the end of the story she's still only in her forties. The strongest emotional bond between any characters in the book is that between Ned and Ellen. Despite all that happens and the appalling circumstances they face the one constant is their love for each other and ironically in the end it is that love and family loyalty that is the undoing of Ned Kelly.
The times and locations are vividly brought to life by Carey. The harsh desolate environment of the Australian colonies is almost impossible for the poor farmer to tame. They are beset by droughts and then followed by floods, the land and climate being their worst enemy. The desolation and vastness of the outback is only good to hide in if you're running from the law and very many are forced to do just that. The story very much reminded me of a Western and in many ways it is. It's set in a similar time with the same sensibilities; the frontier spirit, the lawlessness and harshness of such places. Even though the narrator's first person style is simple and grammatically naive it still manages to bring out the rugged beauty of the land and the doomed humanity of its people.
Of course a lot of the details that Carey includes in the story are fictional, often only the bare facts of the events being historically accurate and yet you do wonder if it wasn't very much like that in reality. One famous aspect of the Kelly gang is their use of armour when going against the armed police, this apparently came about by Ned reading an article about the use of ironclad steamers in the American civil war, not sure if this is true but it sounds plausible. Carey has weaved the truth and the fiction so expertly together using such a sympathetic and authentic sounding voice that you do feel you are actually reading an autobiography.
Overall the 'True History of the Kelly Gang' is a fascinating read which despite initial misgivings about its style was thoroughly entertaining and informative. I'm not sure if at the end we have come any closer to really understanding Ned Kelly but we certainly come to understand more of his world and through that we might have a better understanding of the type of man he might have been.
'True History of the Kelly Gang' is available in paperback (424pages) from Amazon UK for £5.03 with free delivery or the Kindle edition for £4.78 at the time this review was written.
Summary: A fictional account of Ned Kelly's life based on historical fact.