Ned Kelly — outlaw, folk hero, bloodthirsty killer, persecuted scapegoat. The Robin Hood of Australia, man for all nations. Man with the bucket on his head.
The latter designation, applied by one of Kelly's detractors in reference to his armor-clad last stand, pales in comparison to the more dramatic appellations, including the more hyperbolic assessments that go far beyond the pale, and the pail: "Ned Kelly," declares one of his apologists, "became a legend during his own life, and a contributor to the mythology of the bush — the bush as a cradle of mateship, equality, the emphasis on the masculine virtues of strength, and the belief that the bush life was the cradle of much that was different from other lands, the cradle of the Australian, the cradle of the yearning for the life of the fearless, the free and the bold."
And the home of the brave, perhaps, too — there are enough elements in Kelly's life to evoke American legend and the Wild West that you half expect to hear the boast that Kelly killed him a b'ar when he was only 3. Or a 'roo, as it goes.
As tall tales go, Kelly had enough stranger-in-town, ride-into-the-sunset mystique to muddle the distinction between cold-blooded murderer and bold, coddled martyr. All the biographers, historians, poets, playwrights and screenwriters who have not come to a consensus also have not been able to sort out fact from fiction about the exploits of Ned Kelly and his gang. This is perfect, perhaps, for Australia, whose history, noted Mark Twain, "does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies. ... It is full of surprises and adventures, the incongruities, the contradictions, and incredibilities"
Perfect perhaps, too, for Peter Carey, the Australian-born Booker Prize-winning author of Oscar and Lucinda, My Life As A Fake, and Bliss, whose works, which include everything from science fiction to gothic romance, contain more than a touch of the surreal and grotesque, and more than enough beautiful lies and surprises and incredibilities of their own. And so into the variegated fray of Kelly and his world enters Carey with a engrossing, rewarding, and slightly revisionist take.
True History of the Kelly Gang is constituted as a series of letters written by Kelly to the baby daughter he will never live to see. "I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age," Kelly begins, "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."