Since the publication in 1974 of The Fat Man in History, Australian novelist and short story writer Peter Carey has often played with the literal truth, blurring the line between history and fiction and combining fact with fable. True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) is no different. It is the fictional first-person account of Ned Kelly, the notorious nineteenth-century bushranger and outlaw who is as well-known to Australians, and as fascinating to them, as Jesse James is to Americans or Robin Hood is to the English.
In True History of the Kelly Gang, Kelly is writing a series of letters to his unborn daughter. In these letters, he attempts to explain why he first became an outlaw—because he had no choice, he says—and provide her with a true history because, he explains, he knows "what it is to be raised on lies and silences." His own father was an Irish convict, shipped along with his mother to Australia during the Great Transportation. The past has long been dead or silenced for the transported, as if the memory of what was left behind is too painful to talk about. Kelly himself is painfully aware of what that means for him and his culture: they are a people with no cultural memory, adrift, rootless, and left without any meaningful future.
Kelly's "letters" are urgent, raw, and largely unpunctuated, but they are vivid and uniquely written. He speaks the rough language of an Irish Australian and makes easy references to stories and myths that might be lost on a contemporary audience—or on the daughter whom he addresses—if Carey were not so careful to place them in context. Carey's decision to write Kelly's story in Kelly's voice gives readers an opportunity to understand the man behind the legend.