True History of the Kelly Gang gives the bushranger Ned Kelly a chance to tell his own story in the form of a long letter to his daughter in San Francisco. Kelly’s father was a former convict, transported to Tasmania; Kelly has no idea what his father’s crime might have been. He met Kelly’s mother, Ellen, in a town called Donnybrook, and they determined to marry. Her family, the Quinns, were habitual criminals who constantly drew the attention of the police. Ellen Quinn was unaware that her husband was a former criminal, but the police knew, subjected his family to much attention, and attempted to blackmail Ellen for sexual favors. Kelly’s father is finally imprisoned when he takes the blame for young Kelly’s theft and butchering of a cow, although he is in fact prosecuted for removing a brand from the hide. He is released as a favor after Kelly saves a local man’s son from drowning, but he is a broken man and dies shortly after.
At twelve, Kelly finds himself the man of the family and struggles to lead a law-abiding life through farming and breaking horses. His mother, meanwhile, opens a drinking den and, it is suggested, also works as a prostitute. The family moves around, supported by the extended Quinn family, finally settling in the Glenrowan area, where they have bought some land and become “selectors,” or settlers. However, they live in great poverty and remain targets for the local police. Young Ned is temporarily apprenticed to...
(The entire section is 573 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Although Peter Carey resettled in New York in the 1980’s, he has not lost his connection with the land of his birth. He has established through his fiction a bold and penetrating examination of what it means to be an Australian. Carey burst upon the literary landscape in 1974 with the publication of his collection of stories The Fat Man in History. He published his first novel, Bliss, in 1981. It was in his second novel, Illywhacker, that Carey boldly demonstrated that he could be a provocative and inventive novelist of the first order. The novel spanned more than one hundred years of colonial life in Australia. Mixing myth and history, Carey created a startling fictional world that verged on science fiction. His 1988 novel Oscar and Lucinda truly established him as a major author. It tells the story of an eccentric nineteenth century Australian couple who attempt to transport a glass church through the outback with heartbreaking consequences. The novel was widely acclaimed and won the prestigious Booker Prize. Carey was fast becoming a master at juggling the whimsical with the serious, the mythic with the cold hard facts. In his 1998 novel Jack Maggs, he created a nineteenth century world that owed its inspiration to Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations (1860-1861). The protagonist of Jack Maggs is a criminal who, after being exiled to Australia, makes his way back to England. While Carey is supremely adept at recreating the nineteenth century, he is first and foremost a postmodern novelist.
For True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey took on the challenge of telling the story of a legendary Australian outlaw. Ned Kelly is well-known to all Australians, and every Australian has made up his or her mind whether they see him as a mere scoundrel or as a folk hero. For many, Kelly is one of the downtrodden who was brutalized by the British and, therefore, forced by circumstances to take up arms against his exploiters, while for others Kelly is no more than a common murderer. Carey, who has made it quite clear in his earlier novels that he has little sympathy with the British establishment, has found in Kelly a perfect whetstone on which to grind his particular postmodern axe. While Carey clearly understood the pitfalls of choosing to write about a legendary figure, he knew that he could not shy away from the challenge. He has done a thorough job of researching the all-too-brief and violent life of Kelly, yet Carey—as author—does not hesitate to manipulate the facts in order to fit his overall scheme. Carey made the decision to have Kelly tell his own story.
The novel is divided into thirteen parcels or chapters and is supposedly the autobiography that Kelly wrote toward the end of his short life for an infant daughter that he has not seen. Before each parcel there is a detailed bibliographic description of the document. Carey examined the one surviving document that Kelly wrote and used it as a guide for this novel. The document is known as the “Jerilderie Letter” and was written by Kelly a year before he was executed. In the letter, he did his best to justify his life. Carey found the letter to be written in an “amazing, breathless, Irish language.” He went so far as to type “out all 8,000 words” of the letter and carry “it around with me for years.” For Carey, this project was inevitable. He also realized that it would be imperative for him to exploit the power and authenticity of “colloquial speech” for the novel. Since Kelly was not an educated man, Carey had to adopt a rough narrative where punctuation and sentence structure would be awkward at best.
This approach to the retelling of the legend of the Kelly gang and, through them, what it was like to live in nineteenth century Australia works marvelously in True History of the Kelly Gang. What grows out of Carey’s approach is a narrative style that comes close to folk poetry. Kelly expresses himself with such images as “In a settler’s hut the smallest flutter of a mother’s eyelids are like a thin sheet rattling in the wind,” and “I lost my own father from a secret he might as well been snatched by a roiling river fallen from a ravine I lost him from my heart so long I cannot even now properly make the place for him that he deserves.” In addition to...
(The entire section is 1774 words.)