By coincidence, following on from my previous review of ‘In Cold Blood’, this is another novelisation of factual events. More specifically, this novel is (effectively) a biography of Ned Kelly, the famous Australian outlaw, written in the first person using Kelly’s own distinctive personal style.
Kelly was a first generation Australian, son of transported Irish Catholic parents. Part of a large family, Kelly’s life was troubled from the start, with his father being imprisoned and then dying when he was 12, and subsequently a long series of increasingly serious brushes with the law. If you establish a country peopled by former prisoners it is hardly surprising that there are one or two law and order challenges; add in nationalist resentments from the Irish community in Australia, the enmity between Catholics and Protestants, and the grinding poverty which characterised the settlement at the time (the 1880’s, chiefly) then it is hardly surprising that some people decided to live outside the law.
Carey follows what is known of Kelly’s early life with care. His descent into criminality is shown as being unavoidable – despite Kelly’s efforts to remain honest, his personal code doesn’t allow certain slights to go unrevenged. This is all portrayed from Kelly’s perspective, and the elements of self-justification are not hard to spot.
The main interest in Kelly’s story is how he became transformed from a horse thief to a national hero. There are many components to this transformation, and Carey captures them all. Kelly had a naïve belief in the power of the written word, and some of his attempts to justify his crimes have survived, such as the Jerilderie letter. Google this to see the original text – Carey has captured the spirit of Kelly’s style perfectly. Here’s a transcript of the first page of the Jerilderie letter from the Australian National Archives:
‘I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present past and future, In or about the Spring of 1870 the ground was very soft, a Hawker named Mr Gould got his waggon bogged, between Greta and my mother’s place house on the eleven mile creek, the ground was that rotten it would bog a duck in places so Mr Gould had to abandon his waggon for fear of losing his horses in the spewy ground he was stopping at my mother’s awaiting finer or dryer weather, Mr McCormack and his Wife, (Hawkers’ also) were camped in Greta and the mosquitoes were very bad which they generally are in a wet spring and to help them Mr Johns had a horse called Ruita Cruta, although a gelding was as clever as old Wombat or any other Stallion’
There are in this one page several wonderfully expressive phrases – that first line for example, or “as clever as old Wombat” (note, not anold wombat). All Carey had to do to copy this style was pretty much abandon punctuation, throw in lots of vernacular phrases, and plenty of seemingly irrelevant detail, and the job is done.
The other components of the national hero legend are equally obvious. Kelly had a wonderful turn of phrase – the letter ends ‘I am a Widow’s Son, outlawed and my orders must be obeyed’, and at his death it is claimed he said “Such is Life” – and very much in the Robin Hood tradition Kelly was the little guy fighting against an oppressive regime. The spectacular end to the story, when Kelly and his gang wearing their metal armour fight it out against a small army of armed police, gives the story the climax it deserves, although this ending is slightly thrown away in this novel, an inevitable consequence of the first person narrative. But Kelly emerges a charismatic leader, and it is entirely understandable that his legend is secured almost before his death. His crimes are not ignored, but the police murders/killings are shown in context as self defence.
There is a hunger in society for outlaw heroes. Bonnie and Clyde, immortalised in film but not, so far as I am aware, in a novel, are an example from American society. I wonder who will emerge as the outlaw hero of the early 21st century – Julian Assange, perhaps (perhaps not) or the more elusive hackers of the Internet movements?