Book Review: “True History of the Kelly Gang” by Peter Casey

When I was a child of around nine or ten, I read a book entitled “Bushrangers Bold!” about the bushrangers in 19th century, Australia. I remember little about the book except the title and one of the bushrangers, Ned Kelly, who stood out because of his showdown with the police in homemade armour.

bushrangers bold

Bushrangers were Australian outlaws, a mix of highwaymen and Wild West outlaws. They were thieves, who sheltered in the Australian bush, to some they were heroes to others they were villains. Ned Kelly has been portrayed in many films and played by actors such as Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger (2003).

In my twenties, I was fortunate to visit Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and see the historic site of Port Arthur (the main prison in colonial Australia). In Victoria, I didn’t visit Kelly Country, I only visited Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula. I also had the chance to read Robert Hughes’ s remarkable book “The Fatal Shore” about the convict history of Australia.

True history of the Kelly Gang
True History of the Kelly Gang

The “True History of the Kelly Gang” is not 100% true, there is much fictional embellishment in this historical novel. Ned Kelly is given a wife and daughter in the book, which he never had in real life. The author puts himself in the mind of Ned Kelly and it is written as though Ned were writing his own story to his (fictitious) daughter. Ned left school at an early age to team up with bushranger Harry Power so the narrative seems at times semi-literate…”I were”, “could of” etc… also to protect his daughter Ned Kelly doesn’t write out the cuss words, using “adjectively” or “b——d” or “b——-rs” or “effing” in their place.  There is a lot of Australian and Irish argot, too. The police are “traps”, his ma runs a “shebeen” and of course there are the swagmen.

The Kelly Gang only appear two thirds of the way through the book. The early part of the book is just about Ned Kelly himself and includes his first bushranging connection with Harry Power, who takes him on as an apprentice. The story is a continuation of the historic troubles of the Irish Catholics at the hands of the colonial British establishment. The police, the “traps”, are “proddies”, in league with the squatters, who had taken all the best land for themselves, leaving the poorer plots for the Irish. Ned Kelly’s father was a transported convict from Tipperary, who died shortly after serving a six month prison term, leaving the 12 year old Ned as the oldest male in an evergrowing family. Kelly is a hero of the book, not a cold-hearted murderer, he is shown to have initially killed policemen in self defence and when he later robs a bank, some of the proceeds are distributed to the poor, who need it.

Ned Kelly is still a divisive figure in Australia, some see him as a Robin Hood type figure, whilst others view him as a murderous villain. He has been the subject of more biographies than any other Australian. This book was awarded the Booker Prize in 2001 (a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel written in the English language and published in the United Kingdom.)

Ned Kelly by Sid Nolan
Ned Kelly by Sidney Nolan (1946)

This was the first book I read this year in paperback, the other books I finished “The Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens , The Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari were read on my Kindle app. Both paperback and Kindle app have their pros and cons, I find reading a physical book is more immersive, reading on my phone, I am often distracted by notifications and the like.

My rating 4 out of 5

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