The 19th Century, Ned Kelly became an outlaw in the eyes of the British authorities and a Robin Hood-like hero to the Irish poor.
Small wonder, then, that the legend of Ned Kelly has survived not just decades, but mote than a century. In seeking to explain the power of the Kelly legend, American interpreters have compared him to such characters as Jesse James.
But that hardly does justice to Kelly or to the Aussies who revere his memory, for the story of Ned Kelly is not just a modern Robin Hood tale, not just about a more equitable distribution of society’s goods. It’s a tale of identity, nationality, ethnicity, and, ultimately, justice. Ned Kelly is the sort of hero Aussie nationalists — whose campaign to break the final, tenuous links between Australia and the British Crown remains unfulfilled — embrace as a symbol of their cause.
Yes, Ned Kelly was the original wild colonial boy.
Peter Carey, a superb, Aussie-born writer now based in New York, has given new life to the Kelly legend in his well-received novel, "True History of the Kelly Gang." It is a tour de force, a rollicking, moving, eloquent historical novel that raises all kinds of questions, not the least of which concerns the writing and telling of those facts we accept as "true history."
Carey, winner of the Booker Prize for a previous novel, "Oscar and Lucinda," tells the story of Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang in the voice of Kelly himself, writing his life story for his daughter. In an astonishing literary achievement, Carey dispenses with the rules of grammar and style to replicate the voice of the poorly education Ned Kelly. The technique takes a little getting used to. A casual reader browsing the shelves is confronted with the following opening sentence: "I lost my own father at 12 yr. old 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 wrote but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false."
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Kelly, through Carey, tells his daughter that "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." Anybody familiar with the Irish experience in the 19th Century will not need to read that line twice to understand its significance.
"True History" gives readers an unforgettable glimpse of what life was like for the Irish in Australia in the mid- and late-19th Century. The economic and social injustices of the time help explain how this young man, who adored his feisty but flawed widowed mother, became Australia’s most-famous rebel-outlaw.
Readers of this acclaimed book will never sing that rowdy song about old Jack Duggan again without thinking about Ned Kelly’s "true history."