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    A twist to a real story of Irish descent

    By ELLEN HELTZEL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


    As native Peter Carey knows, people Down Under have an abiding respect for those who fight the established order, and one of their favorites is the 19th century thief and murderer Ned Kelly. Kelly ended his life in a shootout when he was still a young man, but he became legendary as an aggrieved soul of Irish descent who fought the English landlords and the government they controlled.

    Kelly is excellent fodder for Carey, whose previous work reveals his skill at taking old material and weaving it into remarkable fiction. He did this with superb skill in his last novel, Jack Maggs, a postmodern version of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations that emphasizedthe story's criminal, the fictional Jack Magwitch. This time Carey plucks Ned Kelly from real life. But, in a similar vein, he tinkers with the facts and the presentation to create True History of the Kelly Gang.

    Here, Kelly's life is recreated in the form of a letter from the outlaw to a young daughter who didn't really exist. But the girl becomes an appropriate reason for Kelly to take pen to paper and explain his life-gone-bad as the end draws near.

    At first, True History seems like a tangle of run-on sentences, starting with, "I lost my father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are too presently too young to understand a word." In short order, however, the cadences -- inspired by Kelly's own writing in a now-historical document called the Jerilderie Letter -- acquire a steady, hypnotic rhythm.

    Central to the story, and surprisingly so for what at first appears a macho tale, is Ned Kelly's mother, Ellen. After Ned's no-good father dies, Ellen packs up her brood, intent on receiving a piece of free land as if it is her salvation. But making loam from hard soil is a back-breaking, uphill battle. Meanwhile, Ellen, who tends to attracts the wrong kind of men, is constantly pursued, constantly pregnant. When rivalry sets in, between her lover and her oldest son, Ned is sent away to apprentice with an infamous highway robber.

    Living as he's been taught, Ned makes his way by instinct. And although his basic impulses are good -- at least in his own telling -- a life with violence begets an appetite for violence.

    Of his first trip to jail, Ned writes, "This is your new selection said Sgt. Whelan and I knew I were finally in that place ordained from the moment of my birth my eyes were adjusting to the light I were studying that iron cot beneath the window thinking it not as bad I had feared." When the consequences don't seem that bad, what's to stop Ned from taking the law into his own hands?

    True History of the Kelly Gang doesn't whitewash Ned Kelly's deeds. But clearly it's a story about desperation, not evil. The tragedy here, for both mother and son, is not their obvious willingness to break the law, but their inability to imagine any other way of living.

    What makes this book exceptional is not the story itself, but how Carey tells it. With the art of a poet, he creates a language that is tied to the time and place in which it happened, and appropriate to the character. At the same time, he describes a universal situation, the heartbreaking blend of ignorance, injustice and poverty.

    - Ellen Emry Heltzel is a writer in Portland, Oregon.

    * * *

    True History of the Kelly Gang

    By Peter Carey

    Knopf, $25

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