The International Fiction Book Club met Wednesday, March 21st to discuss the novel by Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang. A success on several levels, “True History” achieves the status of tour de force because of the insight gained from hearing the voice of the most notorious bushranger of nineteenth century Australia tell his side of the story. If you’ve never heard of Ned Kelly, just imagine a cross of the mythologies built around Robin Hood and Jessie James transported to the Irish underclass in the wilds of the land down under.
In a 2001 interview with the State Library of Victoria, Peter Carey explains how he was inspired from an early age by the Jerilderie Letter, a letter dictated by Ned Kelly to Joe Byrne in 1879. A manifesto of sorts, it is a defense of innocence, explanation of frame-ups by the police and their further intimidation and exploitation of his family and the Irish lower class by the English colonialists. Toward the end of this nearly 8,000 word diatribe Kelly also vows revenge for the injustices done him and his family and issues an ultimatum to other “selectors” in Victoria to either aid and abet his attempts to avoid capture or face dire consequences. In other words, Ned is speaking for an entire class of people and has declared that he is the one suited to the task of not only freeing his mother from prison but at the same time freeing his people from repression. The letter was sent to the Press but was not published. Ned feared his “true history” would be impounded by the authorities and he was right. The bank of Jerilderie was the second and last holdup by the Kelly “Gang” and was part of a plan to secure funds to be used in an attempt to free Ned’s mother from prison. She had been wrongly accused but jailed mainly in an attempt to lure Ned into a trap.
In 1962 Carey happened upon an art exhibit based on the legend of Ned Kelly. This made quite an impression on the 19 year old. Not long after he first read the Jerilderie letter. I quote from the transcript of the interview:
Now, just a little while before, I'd discovered James Joyce and I'd discovered Samuel Beckett, so when I read Ned I also had very strong Irish literary voices running in my head - also writers that didn’t use a lot of commas and full stops. So I read, or misread, the Jerilderie letter in that particular way. And the reason I typed it up is that I knew - well, I thought I was a writer then, but I knew one day, at least, I would be a writer and I would do something with it. I would write a book.
So, after a long gestation period of almost 40 years, Carey brought Kelly’s voice back to life. He does so with much of the original gusto and verve while adding a certain humor that emerges from the slang of language thrust into the absurdities of situations where truth is always subject to the ravages of prejudice and hearsay. Carey gives us Kelly’s voice first as an unassuming reminiscence of himself as a naive 11 year old who tackles the job of slaughtering a wayward cow making a total mess of the process. Written as a justification of his life and addressed to his daughter, the humor stems not only from the situation but from Ned’s (Carey’s) unabashed honesty and evocative use of language. I quote:
Within the year I would have learned to kill a beast very smart and
clean and have its hide off and drying in the sun before you could
say Jack Robertson...
Carey appears to be adding a slight twist to an old adage that reverberates with meaning for the Irish “selectors”. “Before you can say Jack Robinson” is an old saying dating back to the 17th or 18th century in England depending on which version one wishes to believe. Possibly a judge who quickly pronounced death sentences or something akin to that fostered this phrase. In 19th century Victoria however, the name Jack Robertson refers to a squatter on wild land who became a representative in provincial government and was instrumental in getting a homestead act approved so that other squatters would have the opportunity to “select” parcels of wild unclaimed land as long as they agreed to convert it to farmland. The author kills three birds with one stone as he references the man who made it possible for Ned’s mother to select a homestead while using language that reflects a humorous yet straightforward manner that is in the young Ned’s nature.
Much of our discussion centered on this style and how natural and easy this book was to read once one got adjusted to the inverted grammar and colloquial usage. Through his early teen years when he was farmed out by his mother to a notorious bushranger and former lover, Harry Power, to his various run-ins with the law on in to his 20s, Carey keeps a remarkably steady and believable fiction flowing that establishes Ned as a man who remains trustworthy in the face of betrayal almost to the point of foolishness. He remains loyal to his mother though at every turn she seems to go against his best interest. As the novel progresses, Ned becomes figuratively backed into a corner and mentions his “so called Kelly Gang” for the first time on page 255.
Ned’s father was a member of the “Great Transportation” in which British criminals were exported to Australia. This exportation meant a loss of tradition and family history for the offspring born in the new land. From page 290:
That is the agony of the Great Transportation that our parents would
rather forget what come before so we currency lads is left alone
ignorant as tadpoles spawned in puddles on the moon.
What appears to Ned as transvestism, when he discovers a dress worn by his father, is years later revealed by the fictitious wife that Carey creates as part of a costume worn by Irish rebels in the old country who would don blackface and a dress as part disguise and part scare tactics when vandalizing English property. We can assume this is why Ned’s father was a criminal and why Ned’s cohort also donned a dress and would rail about using slogans he must have heard from his dad though surely out of context. This is a people out of context and Ned’s mother does what she must to survive whether it be running a still or “shebeen” or sleeping with outlaws.
In his last confrontation, at the siege of Glenrowan, Ned Kelly wore a suit of homemade armor inspired by newspaper articles of the United States Civil War reporting of ironclad ships that he found covering the walls of a cabin. The plan involved capturing a police train in an attempt to barter for the release of his mother and others who were jailed in order to get Ned to surrender his freedom. The plan was, of course, a dismal failure and the armor nothing but a hindrance. The man to whom Kelly entrusted his “history” sold him out to the police. The only true history is the novel that creates a man behind the souvenirs of the legend. The most important souvenir being the green sash awarded to Ned when he was in his middle teens for saving the life of an English protestant boy who would have drowned if not for his heroics. Ned wore this sash under his armor on that fateful day at Glenrowan. It made a lasting impression on Carey when he viewed the beautiful and colorful sash at a little museum in Benella. This novel has also made a lasting impression on those in attendance at the International Fiction Book Club.
Our next discussion will be on the evening of April 18th at the Blum House when we will be reviewing our interpretation of Soul Mountain by the Chinese author, Gao Xingjian. All are invited to read the book and tell us what you think or just listen to what others have to say. Copies of the book may be checked out at the front desk of the Collinsville Memorial Public Library.
Posted by Jim Krapf, Library Clerk