Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

Truth about a Legend

Have you heard of Ned Kelly? “Yeah,” responded an Aussie friend. “Some people think he was a Robin Hood figure, but he was really just a thief and murderer.” After hearing this description, I began True History of the Kelly Gang. The novel is a fictional account of Kelly’s life. While I might have normally consulted Wikipedia to learn more about the real Ned Kelly before reading, Ned Kelly’s biography sounded like it might be open to debate. Would Wikipedia be reliable in this circumstance?

It is difficult to read the novel without sympathizing for Kelly. The story consists of a collection of letters Kelly writes to his (fictional) daughter. As it chronicles the bushranger’s life, it includes many unflattering descriptions of the police and Victoria’s justice system. At the same time, Kelly does not present himself as a Robin Hood figure. He recognizes that the loyalty of the people can be bought, and with a bounty on his head, altruism appears to be his last hope for survival. But does this describe the real Ned Kelly?

While there are several references cited in Kelly’s Wikipedia entry, the most compelling is the Jerilderie Letter, a statement composed by Kelly that is also mentioned in the novel. The author of this text narrates in a way so similar to the one in True History that I have a difficult time believing they are different people. I can’t think of a better way to praise Peter Carey or his novel.

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