True history of the Kelly gang

by Peter Carey

Hardcover, 2000




New York : Knopf, 2000.


As he flees the police, Ned Kelly scribbles his narrative in semiliterate but magically descriptive prose. To his pursuers he is a thief and a murderer. To his own people he's a hero for opposing the English. Ned, who saw his first prison cell at fifteen, has become the most wanted man in the wild colony of Victoria, taking over towns and defying authority. Here is a classic outlaw tale, made alive by the skill of a great novelist. There are no sentences like these in all Australian literature and yet they could only have grown from our soil.

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LibraryThing member gidders
This is a wonderfull novel that works on several levels. Its a marvellous indictement of British colonial rule, a social history, a travelog, and a rather grim adventure story. Carey displays such imagination and literary bravado. What is fact and what may be fiction hardly matters. His
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descriptions of an underclass battling oppression and poverty are timeless. I finished reading this novel two days ago, and Im still haunted by the images conjured by the author, and I really miss Ned Kelly's company. This is writing at its best. Thought provoking, heart wrenching, and imaginative. Superb!
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Audiobook....Book Club book.....The initial third of this book had me totally engaged. Ned Kelly's childhood was incredible, as was the family he was born into. I also learned about the status of the Irish in Australia in the 1800s, only above the aborigines in the social structure of the times.
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The second third of the book became just plain annoying with trauma after trauma. Is it really possible to be bored in the face of such a tragic tale, you ask? Yes, it is. While. Listening to the audio version with a friend while on vacation, we repeatedly looked at one another and exclaimed," Oh....come ON!"

The final third was an improvement over the middle. Enough said. more thing....if I hear the word "adjectival" one more time I will have to screech!
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LibraryThing member John
I have been a big fan of Peter Carey ever since I read Oscar and Lucinda many years ago, followed by others such as The Illywacker. The Kelly Gang won the Booker for 2001, and it does not disappoint. Ned Kelly is by way of a national hero in Australia, perhaps because he epitomizes the rugged
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individualism of people clawing a life out of the unforgiving frontier of Australian life in the 1800s. But more than that, as Carey shows so well in this novel, people from Ned's class, i.e. poor Irish descendent from prisoners transported from Ireland for a variety of offences, began life with two strikes against them: the prejudices built on their poverty and their roots, the assumption that if they were not in jail, it was only because they had not yet been caught for the crimes they must certainly have committed. Carey describes brilliantly the lawlessness of the border society, including the corruption of those in the police forces, the sweeping class prejudices, and the lives blinkered and constricted before they even really get a start. He conveys a wonderful sense of time and place and everything rings true. Kelly is a wonderfully drawn character (the story is told through Ned's writings to his daughter, explaining his own life), and one cannot help but feel a sympathy for him while sharing a sense of doom as he is inevitably drawn further down into a spiral of violence and clash with authority that will, sooner or later, crush him. The same is true for the range of other characters in the book: all well-drawn, believable, and unique personalities.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Ned Kelly was an Australian outlaw bushranger in the 1800s. His Irish father was convicted of a crime and sent to Van Diemen's land. The family settled in Australia after his release. Ned was forced into adulthood at an early age, and was sent to be an apprentice to another bushranger at the age of
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15. From there he fell into a life of crime, and gained notoriety by consistently eluding capture. However, he also remained fiercely loyal to his large family, especially his mother and brother.

Peter Carey recounts Ned's life story in Ned's own voice, complete with the grammatical anomalies and lack of punctuation that might be expected from a semi-literate young man. The story is compelling and the character development, wonderful. Ned Kelly is a violent criminal, and yet very likeable. I actually found myself cheering him on in his escapades with the police.

True History of the Kelly Gang reminded me of other "outlaw" tales, like the story of Jesse James, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This is not a subject that I'm particularly interested in, and I only read this book because it won the Booker Prize in 2001. I was not disappointed; in fact, I found this book absolutely delightful and difficult to put down. Peter Carey is one of only two authors to win the Booker Prize twice (the other is J. M. Coetzee). Now I can't wait to read his 1988 Booker winner, Oscar and Lucinda.
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LibraryThing member thorold
This is a really excellent historical novel: Carey imagines how Ned Kelly might have told his own story, justifying himself and showing how the social conditions of 19th century Australia pushed him into a direction where his only realistic choice was to resist the forces of law and order that had
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already written him off because of the (Irish, emancipee) family he came from. The world took it for granted that he had to be a criminal, so he became one.

Obviously we are meant to read this more broadly than the specific period it is set in - Carey is showing us what life might look like if you are struggling to survive at the very bottom of society and everyone seems to be against you. But it also works extremely well as an historical novel - Kelly's semi-literate narrative voice is very convincing and consistent, and he gives us a very clear idea of what life was like at the bottom of the heap in rural Victoria. I'm not a judge of Australian idiom, but there was nothing that struck a jarring note for me. There is a lot of violence and unpleasantness in the story, inevitably, but Carey never allows Kelly to enjoy it or take it for granted. He kills policemen because it has become the only way to prevent them from killing him, but it disgusts him to have to do it.

I don't suppose that this is in any way a neutral and objective account of Kelly's life, but it's an entertaining and thought-provoking novel, and I'm glad I got around to it at last.
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
Although Ned Kelly is one of Australia’s enduring folk heroes, I previously knew nothing more about him than a few stereotypes and simplicities still lurking in my brain from my primary school days, just like Captain Cook and the Eureka Stockade and Simpson’s donkey. (There was also Ned, a
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comedy that errs too far towards slapstick and toilet humour, but nonetheless also contains a good deal of genuine wit.) Sometime in my days of contrary adolescent authoritarianism I concluded that Ned Kelly, despite his folk hero status, was a thief and therefore a bad person.

True History of the Kelly Gang turned me around somewhat. I know it’s just fiction, but it’s well-researched fiction that seems to ring true to real life. Most of it is told from the perspective of Ned Kelly himself, in the form of a memoir he is writing to his (fictional) child, and Carey has instilled him with a wonderful narrative voice: lacking commas, expletives censored out, a general rolling conversational style that I couldn’t help but hear in an Irish accent. The story is an account of Ned’s life all the way from his childhood to his famous last stand at Glenrowan, and explains how and why he became the man he did.

Ned Kelly, like many settlers in 19th century Australia, was Irish. The upper class – the landowners, the magistrates, the governors and the police – were largely English. From the very early days of his life, Ned’s family was abused and oppressed and tormented, as were his friends and neighbours, the conflicts of the old country exported to the new. This was crucial; Ned quite explicitly considered himself to be a political rebel, rising up against the English ruling class, wanting nothing more than land and freedom for himself and his family.

It is, of course, a novel, but the one real surviving piece of Kelly’s writing – the Jerilderie letter – outlines the same motives and desires. Furthermore, when he was captured at Glenrowan, he was in possession of a document outlining a proposed declaration of a republic in north-eastern Victoria. As somebody who is both Irish and republican, I find my sympathies leaning towards Kelly. He was still, of course, a thief and a killer, and not somebody whom I’d like to share a milkshake with, but I understand now why many Australians revere him.

I found it particularly interesting to read this directly after Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Towards the end of True History, a character opposed to the Kelly legend says:

What is it about we Australians, eh? he demanded. What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse-thief and a murderer?

I’ve sold my copy of Zinn’s book, so I can’t quote directly, but in the interview towards the back he talks about how we shouldn’t always look to great leaders and heroes – the Lincolns, the Churchills, the Roosevelts – but should instead rely on ourselves, the people, to pull us through harsh times. Ned Kelly is obviously a hero and an icon as well, but he’s about as close to a hero of the people as you could ever get.

So, the book taught me a lot about Ned Kelly and changed my attitude towards him. Is it a good book? Yes. Not a fantastic book, and another Booker-winner that must have been the product of a slow year (like The Blind Assassin), but nonetheless a solid piece of Australian literature and something I’m glad to have read.

Incidentally, my copy was published in the United States, and the blurb makes this idiotic statement:

Exhilarating, hilarious, panoramic, and immediately engrossing, it is also – at a distance of many thousand miles and more than a century – a Great American Novel.

How? How is this Australian novel about an Australian historical figure written by an Australian and set in Australia even remotely a “Great American Novel?” Either the publisher didn’t think Americans would read a book that wasn’t somehow related to America, or Americans really won’t read a book unless it’s somehow related to America. Both are depressing.
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LibraryThing member davidabrams
The Old West comes alive on the pages of Peter Carey’s new novel True History of the Kelly Gang. That’s right, pardner, there’s a whole passel of bank holdups, horse rustling and highway robbing going on.

But would it surprise you to learn I’m talking about the Old West of the Australian
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Outback, circa 1875? Carey’s felonious protagonist is Ned Kelly, a historical figure who has become a legend in Australian lore—sort of like Billy the Kid, the Down Under version.

Being a Yank (born in Pennsylvania, raised in Wyoming), I’d never heard of the notorious Kelly until I picked up Carey’s novel. Somehow, I’d missed the 1970 movie starring Mick Jagger as the outlaw (and music by poet Shel Silverstein!). Apparently, Ned’s the stuff of Robin Hood legends in the former British penal colony. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the true history, for those as ignorant as I was:

Born in 1854 to Irish immigrants, Ned begins by telling us he was left fatherless when he was 12 (“raised on lies and silences‿). Forced off their land by poverty and circumstance, the Kellys (Ned, his mother and several siblings) moved to another district. But times proved hard there on the new farm and the teenage Ned was apprenticed to a highway robber (or “bushranger‿) named Harry Power. Young Ned learned the art of stick-ups (or “bail ups,‿ in the novel’s slang) and it wasn’t long before he landed in jail—his most frequent place of residence in the years to come. After doing hard labor, he was released from prison and returned home to find his family farm depleted and his mother persecuted by the local constabulary. He vowed to take his revenge on the local law for the injustices he perceived; and so, he and a small gang (which included his brother Dan) started horse thieving. Then, in 1878, a constable named Fitzgerald moved in on the farm—supposedly to arrest Dan, but as it turns out he wanted to see their sister Kate. One thing led to another, Kate was assaulted, Fitzgerald was wounded and embarrassed and he vowed to get retribution from the Kellys. A bounty was soon on the gang’s head and a posse was formed. This, in turn, led to a deadly shootout—deadly for the police, that is. Three constables were killed at a gun battle near Stringybark Creek, elevating the Kelly gang’s notoriety. Then banks were robbed, trains held up and more people murdered. As the noose tightened around Ned, he came up with a harebrained scheme to outwit the authorities: he built the first bullet-proof suit, an entire outfit made of iron (including a pot-like helmet with a slit cut out for the eyes). Unfortunately, in the gang’s final confrontation with the law, the 97-pound suit of armor proved only slightly impenetrable. A shot to his legs crippled him and he was captured. On November 11, 1880, Ned Kelly was hanged until dead.

Those are the “facts‿ as I’ve been able to glean them from skimming the internet. Read the jaunty novel by Carey (author of Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs) and you’ll get a slightly narrower view of things—mainly because the entire rip-roaring tale is told in Kelly’s own voice, set down as a series of narratives to his daughter (a fictional license—the real Ned never married or fathered a child).

Presented as a series of “packets‿ whose contents have been hastily scrawled on bank letterhead and envelopes, the story comes to us smelling of unwashed grammar and rip-snorting vernacular. But because he’s writing to his daughter, Ned writes tenderly, avoiding unsavory language (the word “adjectival‿ is substituted for most four-letter oaths). The unpunctuated and run-on result is something that could be coming ripe off the pencil of Jesse James or Black Bart. Here, for instance, is a particularly memorable robbery scene where Ned and Harry have bailed up a stagecoach and the volatile Harry starts arguing with the driver:

I told him said the driver there aint no adjectival gold.

I’m Harry Power cried Harry and I say there is.

I don’t care if you’re the Duke of Gloucester said the driver there aint no gold mate and no amount of hollering is going to change that.

Eff you roared Harry firing the muzzleloader by design or accident decapitating a crow which had been innocently loitering by the road. The explosion alarmed my nervous packhorse so severely that it now went plunging out onto the open road with me clinging to the reins scratching my face in the wattle all I could think was I was now marked as a robber a woman inside the coach were staring directly at me.

True History of the Kelly Gang is sympathetic to the outlaw in the same way that the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid washed those fellows in golden light. Here, the ink is gold and so too, it would appear, is Ned’s heart. Carey’s favor lies with the ironclad bad guy and that certainly tilts the book to one side (“I have spilled human blood when there were no other choice‿).

While Carey’s passion for his subject is unmistakable, I couldn’t summon as much passion for the novel itself. For one thing, it gets my vote as the Most Laborious Reading Experience of the Year. I’ve read passage of James Joyce which were smoother sailing than Carey’s rough-hewed narrative, written almost entirely in Ned’s uneducated 19th-century dialect. The tumble-without-end sentences will remind some readers of William Faulkner or even the more contemporary Don DeLillo when he gets warmed up. Unfortunately, the prose created a barrier between the story and me; it took me nearly three weeks to work my way from first page to last.

And yet, I’ve got to admit that True History of the Kelly Gang might just be one of the most daring tricks of the literary year. It’s hard to sustain such an intensely illiterate voice for 354 pages, but Carey pulls it off with the confidence of someone who knows his subject inside out (from the golden heart to his ironclad clothes). This is not, by any means, a timid novel.
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
Poignant and entertaining, it’s a story of a bushman and a folk hero in the 19th century Australia, Ned Kelly, told in his own voice in a form of a long lost memoir. Carey apparently came up with Kelly’s unique voice after coming across a real letter Kelly wrote to the authorities explaining
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why he was innocent of the crimes ascribed to him. It had its own singular grammar and no punctuation, very much like the style of the book. Carey makes Kelly a victim of circumstances, corrupt policeman, vindictive administrators, bad laws and prejudice against the Irish. I guess it's up to us to decide how reliable the narrator is, even though there is a lot apparently pointing in that direction. The book makes for great reading, even though it takes some time to get used to. It sags a bit in the middle, but is quite brilliant overall.
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LibraryThing member idyll
This book is probably better to listen to than to read. The language is very pleasant, rolling over you. Loved the use of "adjectival" - it kept making me smile. The structure of the novel is intriguing and the author made some interesting choices. I knew nothing of this piece of history and it's
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easy to see why the story still has power and significance to Australians.
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LibraryThing member lriley
IMO the best thing I've read by Carey and well deserving of the Booker prize. The book follows the trials, tribulations and adventures of the legendary Australian bandit Ned Kelly as he outwits and battles with the forces of law and order. Carey's rendering of the iron helmeted clad Irish
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descendent cum troublemaker is not truly historical fiction--it is more of an idealized and sympathetic look at his native land's own version of Robin Hood the action mainly described by Ned in his own words and dialect in papers he writes to his infant daughter while on the run from a variety of law officers and bounty hunters. The Kelly's are certainly a rough lot but also often victims of circmumstances beyond their control and prey to the whims and vindictiveness of numerous local authorities and some not so nice, often sleazy but upstanding citizens. In any case though it ends sadly with Ned being hanged it is a very entertaining read.
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LibraryThing member Brasidas
This book is a wonder. It is interesting that it can be so effective when its artiface it so apparent. No one really writes like this; no one really talks like this; to read a few pages is proof enough of that. The technique is mostly run on sentences and colorful Australian argot. Yet one is
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completely mesmerized by the book. It's pleasures as a narrative are rich and unrelenting. A sort of vengeance fills me as I read. My God, the dreary damp pitiful lives of these people! Only 1/2 way through but wanted to start these notes.
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LibraryThing member purplerevival
Very evocative - brought 1800s Australian history vividly to life - and excellent characterisation in that I really felt and understood Ned Kelly's experience of the way the world was to him. I'm undecided on the writing style - perhaps I can best describe it as first person semi-literate. It
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probably contributed to the close connection I felt with Kelly, but - and maybe I'm just old-fashioned - it didn't contribute to an 'easy read' - not that the subject was ever going to be particularly jolly. And maybe that's another slight negative for me - there wasn't much in the way of humour - completely understandable given the topic - but it was 400+ pages knowing it was never going to end well and without much light relief.
But, that said, I learnt a few things along the way and although it's probably not going to make it onto my re-read list, I'll certainly be adding some of Peter Carey's other books to my reading list.
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LibraryThing member mielniczuk
Thoroughly engaging story that should be required reading for both police and people working with families trying to overcome the impossible.
LibraryThing member shawnd
This book was the winner of the Booker Prize and is an amazing historical fiction of a criminal and popular hero in 19th century Australia named Ned Kelly. The story recounts, in Kelly's first person voice, his life from childhood until his untimely death. The book is packed with action, drama,
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trumped up crime and real crime. The protagonist is completely likeable, ethical, and a swirling mess of characters, motives, governments and relationships conspire to put a group of men against the law but not the populace. I would highly recommend this book.

A note on style and punctuation. To add character to the story, the author is presenting the story with details as if truly written almost as a diary, and embellishing the presentation. (If the author could, I suspect he would have bound the book as it would have been in the 1800's). As such, being particularly accurate includes the punctuation that Ned Kelly would have used writing this himself. Which is to say none. I found this practice added to my experience of the book. Perhaps only twice or thrice did I find myself having to re-read a sentence again to get the break point. Once the reader plunges into the 'voice' of the reader and gets into it, it makes the book more real and the experience more vibrant. As an aside, I did feel the book got a little ribald at times which was my only and very slight complaint.
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LibraryThing member samfsmith
Sort of the Australian version of the James gang from the American west. It even happened around the same time. This is a novel, although it may be based on fact - I didn’t realize this until I read the acknowledgments at the end. It’s written in the form of a journal by Ned Kelly, an account
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of his true history addressed to his daughter.

Which is part of the problem I had with the book. Kelly didn’t know how to use commas, or, more correctly, the author chose that Kelly should write that way. Not only commas, but the usual things that an author would use to show that his narrator is uneducated. Makes the novel a little difficult to get interested in, and hard to read, and wearing. I almost gave up around page 200 - it was just more of the same, but I slogged all the way to the end.

It won the Booker prize, but I was not that impressed.
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LibraryThing member atheist_goat
I LOVED this and I don't know why. It should have been so annoying and pretentious and Safran Foer-esque, but instead it was FANTASTIC.
LibraryThing member Smiler69
Had I done the slightest bit of research before starting to read this book, I would have known that Ned Kelly and his "gang" were true historical figures and considered by many Australians as folk heroes. As it was I thought that Peter Carey was very clever to invent this fictional character and
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present him to us through a series documents supposedly written by the infamous Kelly himself. Of course, Carey did in fact write a fictional story since Kelly’s exact actions, thoughts and intentions will never be known to us and had to be made up based on historical documents. Ned’s first person account of his life story begins when he was a young boy living with his mother, six siblings, and occasionally with his father too, who was an outlaw and was repeatedly incarcerated. If we are to believe this fictional Ned’s version of the events, he became an outlaw because circumstances forced him to adopt that way of life although he was not in the least the hardened killer he was made out to be by the government and the media, and it’s hard not to feel sympathetic toward his cause. In any case, it’s an entertaining story with good guys that are bad and bad guys that are actually good, lots of horses, guns and shooting and a detailed description of what living as a poor farmer in Australia in the late 19th century, or being apprentice to an experienced bushranger (Australian outlaw) must have been like. It’s all made all the more colourful thanks to Ned’s simple "adjectival" prose which is riddled with the suggestion of expletives, although Ned’s obviously gone through pains to keep things as clean as he knew how since the raison d'être of these documents is for his daughter to one day have a true account of the events that led up to her father’s death.
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LibraryThing member richardgarside
A bit difficult to read, puntuation etc but well worth it
LibraryThing member cestovatela
Ned Kelly is Australia's anti-hero, a poor Irish farm boy who, at least according to legend, robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. True History is written as Ned Kelly's autobiography, penned on whatever scraps of paper could be found in a farm house or cave, riddled with grammatical errors
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and run-on sentences, intended for the daughter Kelly would never get to meet. What makes this book so strong is its unexpectedly poignancy. Young Kelly's life is full of disappointments -- dying siblings, draughts, harsh treatment from the mother he loves, and a justice system seemingly bent on persecuting the poor Irish minority. Carey imbues his writing with the pathos of a boy forced to become a man before his time. "I were but 14 1/2 yr. old no razor had yet touched my upper lip but as I cantered after [the outlaw] Harry Power ... I were already traveling full-tilt toward the man I would become," Kelly narrates. Equally powerful is the way Carey evokes the harsh life of newly-colonized Australia. This isn't just the story of Ned Kelly; it's the story of everyone who suffered poverty and hardship in what they hoped would be a land of opportunity. Still, Carey doesn't forget that Ned Kelly is an outlaw, quick-tempered and with blood on his hands. With a small twist at the end, he works around Kelly's limited first person vision to suggest a more complex portrait of the man and the legacy he left. If the final chapters lagged a bit, it's only because I was more interested in the story of becoming an outlaw than the story of being an outlaw. Still, I recommend this book to anyone looking to learn a bit about Australia or just to read the narrative of a compelling character.
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LibraryThing member PaulaCheg
Loved this for the language, and the portrayal of Ned Kelly as a victim of circumstance.
LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
absolutely loved this fictionalized biography of Australian folk hero Ned Kelly. This is a Booker Winner that is definitely worthy of the prize.

Ned Kelly was an outlaw, viewed by the police and some citizens as a hardened criminal, a heartless monster. To many however, he was a persecuted Irishman
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who was forced into some of the actions he took. His story is written in the first person, in prose that on the one hand is semi-literate and on the other hand poetic. It begins:

"I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false."

The true Ned Kelly left behind an "justification" in his own words, "the Jerilderie Letter" which was discovered in the 1930's. This letter is an interesting read in and of itself, and as confirmation as to how well Carey captured Ned Kelly's voice.
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LibraryThing member rizeandshine
I knew the basic legend of Ned Kelly before I read this book, but that's about it. I enjoyed the author's take on the story behind the legend, which he brought to life using Ned's own voice. Grammatical errors and lack of punctuation caused a bit of confusion at times but I think overall made the
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story more believable and easier to identify with Ned as its author. The story of a hard-working boy born to a poor Irish family in late 19th century Australia, dealing with the cheating ways of the ruling English Australians makes the reader empathize quite a bit with Ned. I felt less empathy for the Kelly family as a whole, as they often were the cause of their own problems. I don't think the story places Ned in the role of hero, but it does try to make the reader understand what may have led to his criminal acts and subsequent legendary status. I enjoyed the book, although it felt a little long towards the end, where I anxiously awaited the bank robbery and armor-clad shootout.
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LibraryThing member saroz
I tried this book for no other reason than I liked the title and premise. For a story where every reader knows the inevitable outcome, it manages to be both absorbing and fresh, with a unique voice in the form of Ned Kelly's narration. There's just enough taken from history, and enough extrapolated
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from bits and pieces of known correspondence and journalism, to make it feel like you are reading a historically-accurate (though clearly subjective) document - which, while not quite true, comes a lot closer than most "fictionalized history" novels. It isn't thrilling, because nothing recounted in the form of letters is ever thrilling, but it exerts its own kind of hold that keeps you constantly wondering what choice Ned will make next, and either cheering for him or wanting him to hold back. That's the sign of great characterization, and will keep me on the lookout for more novels by this author.
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LibraryThing member roxyrolla
I quite enjoyed this book, but it took me a loooooong time to read! It's not one that I could pick up and read a100 pages in a night. Peter Carey does a really great job of bringing Ned Kelly to life.
LibraryThing member piano3646
A bit too long with the writing style. I felt very frustrated that it kept going back and forth, I read to about 2/3 way through and couldn't finish it in the end.



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