“I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age 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 write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”
In True History of the Kelly Gang, the legendary Ned Kelly speaks for himself, scribbling his narrative on errant scraps of paper in semiliterate but magically descriptive prose as he flees from the police. To his pursuers, Kelly is nothing but a monstrous criminal, a thief and a murderer. To his own people, the lowly class of ordinary Australians, the bushranger is a hero, defying the authority of the English to direct their lives. Indentured by his bootlegger mother to a famous horse thief (who was also her lover), Ned saw his first prison cell at 15 and by the age of 26 had become the most wanted man in the wild colony of Victoria, taking over whole towns and defying the law until he was finally captured and hanged. Here is a classic outlaw tale, made alive by the skill of a great novelist.
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"What is it about we Australians, eh?" demands a schoolteacher near the end of Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang. "Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might not we find someone better to admire than a horse-thief and a murderer?" It's the author's sole nod to the contradictory feelings Ned Kelly continues to evoke today, more than a century after his death. A psychopathic killer to some, a crusading folk hero to others, Kelly was a sharpshooting outlaw who eluded a brutal police manhunt for nearly two years. For better or worse, he's now a part of the Australian national myth. Indeed, the opening ceremonies for the Sydney Olympics featured an army of Ned Kellys dancing about to Irish music, which puts him in the symbolic company of both kangaroos and Olivia Newton-John.
What's to be gained from telling this illiterate bushranger's story yet again? Quite a lot, as it turns out. For starters, there is the remarkable vernacular poetry of Carey's narrative voice. Fierce, funny, ungrammatical, steeped in Irish legends and the frontier's moral code, this voice is the novel's great achievement--and perhaps the greatest in Carey's distinguished career. It paints a vivid picture of an Australia where English landowners skim off the country's best territory while government land grants allow the settlers just enough acreage to starve. Cheated, lied to, and persecuted by the authorities at every opportunity, young Kelly retains no faith in his colonial masters. What he does trust, oddly, is the power of words:
And here is the thing about them men they was Australians they knew full well the terror of the unyielding law the historic memory of UNFAIRNESS were in their blood and a man might be a bank clerk or an overseer he might never have been lagged for nothing but still he knew in his heart what it were to be forced to wear the white hood in prison he knew what it were to be lashed for looking a warder in the eye ... so the knowledge of unfairness were deep in his bone and in his marrow.Ned Kelly as literary hero? Strangely enough, that's what he becomes, at least in Carey's rendering. Pouring his heart out in a series of letters to the country at large, Kelly wants nothing more than to be heard--and for the dirt-poor son of an Irish convict, that's an audacious ambition indeed. It's not so surprising, then, that his story continues to speak to Australians. Like all colonial countries, Australia was built at a steep human price, and the memory of all those silenced voices lives on. True History of the Kelly Gang takes its epigraph from Faulkner: "The past is not dead. It is not even past." And like Faulkner's own vast chronicle of dispossession, it's haunted by tragedies as large as history itself. --Mary Park From the Back Cover:
"Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang purports to transcribe documents, 'thirteen parcels of stained and dog-eared papers,' in which the celebrated outlaw, on the run, set down for the benefit of his daughter (whom he was destined never to see) a heartfelt account and justification of his short and violent life. The ingenuity, empathy, and poetic ear that the novelist brings to his feat of imposture cannot be rated too high; hardly a colloquialism feels turned wrong, hardly a homely phrase feels rote, patronizing, or quaint . . . The poetry that Carey can coax from this lightly educated ruffian's lightly punctuated prose gratifies us on every page [and] rises to the occasion like the Song of Songs." —John Updike, The New Yorker
"This avalanche of a novel [raises] a national legend to the level of an international myth."
—Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
"A spectacular feat of literary ventriloquism [with] all the makings of a swaggering adventure tale as well as a classic Western tragedy. The effect is triumphantly eclectic, as if Huck Finn and Shakespeare had joined forces to prettify the legend of Jesse James . . . But this rip-snorting Western novel rises far above such considerations and works on its own great merits as a seamlessly imagined coming-of-age story set in wild country and wilder times. Though Ned Kelly died in 1880 just before his 26th birthday, he could not be more furiously alive." —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"The best measure of the novel's excellence [is] that you never doubt it's Kelly's own words you're reading in the headlong, action-packed story filled with stage-coach holdups, bank robberies and backstabbing treachery."
—Malcolm Jones, Newsweek
"Ambitious and adventurous . . . from lyrical to rowdy and ribald . . . Peter Carey's Ned Kelly is somebody worth knowing and remembering, and his novel is also worth our best attention." —George Garrett, The Washington Post Book World
"Highly original . . . To read it is to be carried away." —Sara Dowse, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"True History of the Kelly Gang is a true wonder. It's lyrical and hard-edged at the same time, constantly inventive, pell-mell in its storytelling, and best of all, the voice Peter Carey invents for Ned Kelly is nothing less than mint-fresh original. This is just amazing writing." —Kent Haruf
"A big, meaty novel, blending equal parts Dickens and Cormac McCarthy, and a complete success . . . Most immediately striking is how much it resembles an American Western about such legendary outlaws as Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde." —Ken Foster, The San Francisco Chronicle
"To succeed as literature a book must entertain. This novel is no exception—a tough, sweet, rousing thing of ungrammatical sentences and unquestionable wisdom." —Erik Torkells, Fortune
"There is certainly justice in putting True History on the bookshelf next to Shane . . . It rocks and cajoles the reader into a certainty that Ned Kelly is fit company not only for Jack Palance and Clint Eastwood but for Thomas Jefferson." —Johnathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times
"The power and charm of True History [brings] Australia's legendary Ned Kelly vibrantly to life." —Paul Gray, Time
"I completely admire Peter Carey's work—the worlds he enters, the stakes he goes for—and Ned Kelly's a leap even beyond the others, brilliantly constructed, gorgeously written, a simply heartbreaking story." —Beverly Lowry
"Dazzling . . . narrated with great flair in prose heavy on expletives and light on punctuation—yet full of music and poetry." —The Economist
"Bolder and more challenging than anything [one of fiction's great treasure hunters] has attempted before . . . the book's power as a narrative is nearly overwhelming. The twang of Ned's untutored but vibrant prose would be hypnotic in itself, yet Carey adapts it to a series of set pieces . . . that are as gripping as any you could wish to read. He has transformed sepia legend into brilliant, even violent, color, and turned a distant myth into warm flesh and blood. Packed with incident, alive with comedy and pathos, True History of the Kelly Gang contains pretty much everything you could ask of a novel. It is an adjectival wonder. " —Anthony Quinn, New York Times Book Review
"Wholly convincing not only as an outback adventure but also as a psychological and historical drama. It is, above all, a spectacular feat of imagination grounded in an Australian landscape [that] is an astonishing, apparently limitless place with mysteries of its own to reveal . . . Carey has immersed us so completely in Kelly's world and swept us along at such a cracking pace that the novel's last scene is physically draining, bewildering. Like Ned we can hardly believe it is all over." —Anna Mundow, The Boston Sunday Globe
“True History of the Kelly Gang is a true wonder. It’s lyrical and hard-edged at the same time, constantly inventive, pell-mell in its storytelling, and, best of all, the voice Peter Carey invents for Ned Kelly is nothing less than mint-fresh original. This is just amazing writing.” —Kent Haruf
“As genuine as a diamond in the rough . . . In essence an adventure saga, with numerous descriptions of the wild and forbidding Australian landscape, shocking surprises, coldhearted villains who hail from the top and the bottom of the social ladder, and a tender love story. Carey (Booker Prize winner for Oscar and Lucinda) deserves to be lionized in his native land for this triumphant historical recreation, and he will undoubtedly win a worldwide readership for a novel that teems with energy, suspense, and the true story of a memorable protagonist . . . No reader will be left unmoved.” —Publishers Weekly
“I completely admire Peter Carey’s work—the worlds he enters, the stakes he goes for—and Ned Kelly’s a leap even beyond the others: brilliantly constructed, gorgeously written, a simply heartbreaking story.” —Beverly Lowry
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