Legend in my family has it that my great, great grandmother was good friends with Ned Kelly’s sister Kate. The two young women would take supplies up to Ned, Steve, Joe, and Dan in the ranges, sneaking back down through the scrub during the night. Dad told me this when I was eight and from that day I started reading my brother’s books on the Kelly Gang – of policemen shot, hotels held-up, rich squatters robbed – and became obsessed with Ned Kelly. On the back page of my diary I wrote, ‘I Love Ned Kelly’, this man who stole horses and at nineteen won a twenty-round bare-knuckle boxing match on a creek bank, and kissed the paper beneath it with red-stained lips. Ned Kelly, with his big beard, dark Irish eyes, delicious flick of black hair and stern mouth.
Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is one of my favourite books. I picked it off the shelf only a few weeks ago, but soon after I began reading I was lost in Carey’s prose and back in love with Ned. I’d tried to read it some years ago, but found the writing syrupy and think. There is not one comma in the whole story, so it took some patience. This time round though, I was drawn to the drama and violence of the Kelly family that grabbed me as a kid.
The novel is presented as a volume of parcels Ned Kelly has written for his daughter to explain his life and actions. Despite the staggering amount of research that would have gone into creating this book, True History of the Kelly Gang is only part truth. Ned Kelly never had a known daughter. Around the bones of historical fact, Peter Carey has added flesh to the past by giving voices to the Kelly family and the policemen that hunted them, and life to the events that have made Australian folklore.
Ned grows up in Eleven Mile Creek in country Victoria, with a handful of brothers and sisters and a father in jail. His mother Ellen is loving but harsh; she sells sly grog to local vagrants from their front veranda and sleeps with local bushrangers in exchange for gifts and money. The local police constantly hassle the Kellys over horses gone missing in the area, and the whereabouts of local crims. The family go about their lives in a confused love for each other. They kill for their kind, but are never straightforward in their declarations. When he is twelve Ned is sold off by his mother to the local bushranger Harry Power as an apprentice because it is the only way she can feed her children. Ned is angry and hurt, pining for home. Ned Kelly speaks in long breathless sentences throughout the book, a rush of words and haunting images.
It were winter the clouds was grey and smudgy with distant rain the light were fading fast. In that melancholic landscape I seen a female on an Arab she were riding at full gallop. No woman on earth could ride like my mother it were thrilling to behold she rode with her back straight her stirrups long her skirts rucked up to show her knees. She made the girls at Kilwarra Races seem all milksop babes.
Carey lets Ned’s voice shift and change as the story progresses, reflecting young Kelly’s developing attitudes to the world around him. He writes with romance and longing about his childhood at Eleven Mile Creek, but his words are clipped and stiff when he talks about the policemen and the crimes they commit.
I was never left to feel that Ned’s fate hanging from a rope is really his fault, more the consequence of actions he was forced to take for good reason. The book is angry and defiant, giving voice to people hurt by authorities that were supposed to protect, but beautifully tender in its portrayal of family and loyalty.
I would sit on the train at times with my heart pumping in my chest as I read Ned telling me about setting eyes on his Mary, discovering dresses his father would don and play in, and hitting his brother Dan for cursing their mother. Ned Kelly came alive on the train between Flinders Street and Southern Cross, at the kitchen table, and in the park before work started.