TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG by Peter Carey
Book Club Meeting: February 2012
Category: fiction; crime, historical fiction
Setting: 19th century Van Diemen’s Land (Australia)
First Published: 2000
Notable Awards: Man Booker Prize (2001), Commonwealth Writers Prize (2001)
Sneak Peek: “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.”
Our second book club took place last night, a wee bit later than we’d originally planned, but alas–when we each have our individual plights to fight, it’s hard to get us to sit down and talk! We were unanimously appreciative of Carey’s work, and each brought something a little different to the table. The conversations, over Valentine gummies and SteamWhistle beer, wound down to an excellent debate about whether there is such a thing as universal values or truths (do we all have a right not to be shot, or merely the right to expect to not be shot?) and to asking ourselves what it might mean for our own nation’s dispossessed to be “made noble in the fire” (Carey 265).
For your reading assistance, here again is a list of discussion questions that might help you along your travels with the Kelly Gang. (Furthermore, if you love this book, we suggest you also read George Bowering’s Shoot! and Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.)
**Finally, for my friends whom I’ve misinformed: The Jerilderie Letter was in fact a historical document. Interestingly, the letter came to public light, from private hands, in the year 2000–the same in which Carey published his novel–suggesting that Carey either knew ahead of time something more of its existence than others, or that his novel came out at an amazingly fortunate time.**
- What did you think of the novel? What did you love? What did you hate?
- How did you react to the lack of punctuation and cultural diction? Did they hinder/improve the narration? Think of some of the things Kelly writes in his own letters. “My daughter if I make mistakes of grammar now do not think your-self grander than your father . . .” (335). His character aside, Thomas Curnow offers interesting perspective regarding form, saying, “It is history Mr Kelly it should always be a little rough that way we know it is the truth” (351). How structurally rough should histories be? Should they aim for a goal, or be left unsullied?
- Discuss the editorial influence of characters like Thomas Curnow, Mary Hearn, Joe Byrne, and S.C. who authors “The Siege at Glenrowan.” What do you make of the italicized text in The Morning Chronicle report of the holdup (301, ff)? In the description of Parcel Three, in the chapter “His Life at 15 Years of Age,” the archivist writes, “Contains interesting details of the author’s apprenticeship to Harry Power, together with claims that this arrangement was not to his liking.” How does this statement reflect a comment Carey might be making about the interactions between official History and personal histories? Does Kelly ever have a voice of his own (Jerilderie Letter)? Is there a relationship in the novel between physical imprisonment and narrative imprisonment?
- Knowing that Kelly’s daughter is a wholly fabricated character historically, what do you make of the following statement: “I knew I would lose you if I stopped writing you would vanish and be swallowed by the maw” (335)? Does Kelly fear that he will be swallowed by the maw? or that his daughter–an unborn and historically-unreal figment–will be swallowed by the maw? What might this say about the human need to write and/or the human need to have faith?
- What else does this narrative say about human nature? What is the significance of Curnow’s role in the story? He has last say… and follows through on what he promises to do in terms of bringing Kelly’s story to light, but is ultimately a traitor. Is he a sympathetic or unsympathetic character, or both?
- What is the significance of horses in the novel? Where do they show up, and why? (290).
- How much of the book’s events is driven by a legacy of broken lineages? For example, Ned reflects on “the agony of the Great Transportation” and how the move to Australia was an opportunity for immigrants to “forget what come before,” thus leaving their offspring “ignorant as tadpoles spawned in puddles on the moon” (290). What role does Ireland have in the novel? What sort of things must remain in Ireland, and not be transplanted to Van Diemen’s Land? (e.g. Sons of Sieve). What is the effect of the hyper-religious, mythological Irish-Catholic stories? (Devil’s deal, 80-82; Banshee, 91-93).
- Is there more to cross-dressing in the novel than Mary Hearn’s elucidation of the Sons of Sieve story?
- What do you think of when you think of Australia? How and when does Kelly fall in line with what you perceive as being Australia’s masterplot (i.e. what Australia’s ‘all about’)? When does he break free from it?
- What is Carey’s project, and how does he go about it? In her essay “Peter Carey” Helen Daniel has said, “All Carey’s work is about stories, those we fabricate ourselves and those thrust upon us, dislodging our own” (83-84). Do you agree? How much is Kelly’s agency constructed/deconstructed by stories of hearsay and of notoriety? How much agency does Kelly have, and how does he inflict upon others’ agency?
- “Harry always knew he must feed the poor & flatter them he would be Rob Foy or Robin Hood he would retrieve the widow’s cattle from the pound and if the poor selectors ever suffered harassment or threats on his behalf he would make it up with a sheep or barrel of grog or fistful of sovereigns” (298). Does this summary reflect a maturation on Ned’s part? Is it a different take on Power compared to years previous? How much might this change be brought upon by Ned’s recognition of his own fate? Is he speaking nobly of ‘bad men’ for the sake of wanting to improve his own legacy? Fifty pages earlier, we witness Sgt. Kennedy’s dying words to Ned that the latter has “shed blood enough” (254). How does this affect how you read the “traps” and Kelly? Purportedly, the historical Kelly’s last words on the gallows were “Such is life.” How does this change your perception of who Kelly was? Who’s the good guy in what has become the infamous “Kelly Outrage”? Is there ever a time when it’s right to assess participants as categorically “good” and “bad”?
- Do you think it works to extend the political philosophy behind the book to other times/places/people? In other words, when should the specifics of a narrative be reserved for the specifics of that narrative? Think of Ned’s comment to his daughter that “in the end we poor uneducated people will all be made noble in the fire” (265).
- What do we think of Peter Carey’s truthful admission that he is lying? Carolyn Bliss writes, that he is “one of a number of Australian fiction writers to stump readers with the Cretan Liar Paradox, which precludes adequate response to an admitted liar’s admission that he is, ‘in fact’ or ‘in truth,’ lying” (276). Is Carey’s “yarning and patent conning” an instance of postmodern play? Does he retain an ethical purpose?
- What were your feelings, as you were reading, about the relationship between Ned & Ellen Kelly? At one point, Ned mistakes Mary Hearn, his lover, for his mother. Towards the end of the story, Mary asks, “Is it true do you really love her more than me?” (321). Ned’s answer is “It aint the same.” What do you think Carey is doing here with the conflation?
- he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
We would not die in that man’s company… (354)
Did Kelly ever have a way to depart?
- Why do you think the title of the novel is about the “Kelly Gang” and not merely about “Ned Kelly”?
- Is this a story of colonization or decolonization? How do we account for the fact that the novel (and mostly any narrative about Ned Kelly) does very little with the history of dispossessing Australia’s aboriginal communities of their land? How might that same phenomenon apply in other previously-colonial nations?