Saturday, June 20, 2009

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Ned Kelly would be arguably the most famous figure in 221 years of white Australian history. Perhaps second to Kylie Minogue, but definitely more interesting. He polarises opinions. You will hear sane and balanced people swear that he was a cross between Garibaldi, Martin Luther King and Fabio. Other sane and balanced people swear he was a straight out criminal who shot police if he couldn't corrupt them.

This book, by one of my favourite authors, won the Booker Prize in 2001. It's taken me this long to get around to reading it, because I suppose I just thought I knew the story.

Carey has borrowed the style of Kelly's Jerilderie Letter, and told the story of his life in the first person. If you haven't read the letter (its long - about 8000 words) you can find it here. He has a very vivid way of writing and is very sparing with his full stops. My favourite bit is this description of the police:
...the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big, ugly, fat-necked, wombat-headed, big-bellied, magpie-legged, narrow-hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords which is better known as officers of Justice or Victorian Police, who some calls honest gentlemen.
He has done a brilliant job of inhabiting Kelly and bringing his story to life. It was a very hard time to live in the bush, and very hard time to be Irish - the action mostly happens through the 1870s. The grinding poverty of Ned's upbringing and his extended family's involvement in small-time crime leads him step-by-step into deeper and deeper trouble.

It is so similar to stories that are going on all around us all the time, undocumented. Its tragic that so early in life the options for some people narrow down to a) crime or b) rejection by their family. Any one of us in their shoes would probably choose crime.

One very engaging passage of the book describes how the gang were holed up in a shepherds' hut, wallpapered with old pages from the Illustrated Australian News According to this Kelly's famous armour was inspired by the armoured battleships of the US Civil War.
The previous incumbent must have been a Yankee every page he pasted were about their Civil War I were often disappointed to find the outcome of a battle eaten by a mouse. I read from the floor to 6 ft. of height then constructed a kind of hurdle to get up under the rafters I come across the badly damaged likeness of a ship called the Virginia the southerners had clad it all with iron there were another ship the Monitor its bridge were like a tower forged of steel 1/2 in. thick an ironclad monster with a pair of 11 in. guns like the nostrils on a face. O that a man could smith himself into a warship of that pattern he could sail it to the gates of Beechworth and Melbourne Gaols. No munition could injure him or tear his flesh he would be an engine like the Great Cuchulainn in his war chariot they say it bristled with points of iron & hooks & straps & loops & cords.

No comments: