This novel purports to be the story of Ned Kelly, the most famous of all Australian outlaws, as told in his own words. We learn that after Ned’s capture in the shoot-out at Glenrowan on June 28th, 1880, "thirteen parcels of stained and dog-eared papers, every one of them in Ned Kelly’s distinctive hand" (p. 4), were discovered among his things. These parcels turned out to be a memoir, addressed to the infant daughter whom he was never to see because his wife fled to San Francisco.

Ned was the son of poor Irish immigrants who farmed a "selection" (i.e. homestead) in the northern part of the colony of Victoria. After his father died, in order to help support her children, Ned’s mother took up with a series of dubious men, including an outlaw named Harry Power, who became the boy’s manipulative mentor. The memoir presents Ned as a goodhearted, loyal, and basically honest young man who came to blows with the law partly as a result of his bad companions, and partly through the intrinsic malice of the police.

Along with his brothers and two friends, he reluctantly becomes a bank robber, commits a few incidental murders, and ends up as a popular hero whose final capture has become part of Australian legend. The memoir shows us that the 26-year-old Ned could have escaped to America with his wife, but chose to remain in Victoria because he hoped somehow to free his mother, who was serving a jail sentence in Melbourne. The memoir also describes the origin of the famous iron armor that Ned was wearing when he was captured.


Ned Kelly is Australia’s own Robin Hood. In a country just a couple of generations removed from being a penal colony, Ned’s brand of insouciance appealed to the popular imagination. He stole from the wealthy bankers, took care of his poor relatives, thumbed his nose at authority, and totally confounded the police. Since his death at the hands of the hangman in Melbourne in 1880, the legend of Ned Kelly has skyrocketed. Today the Old Melbourne Gaol is a major tourist attraction largely because of its association with Kelly. And now a major Australian novelist has "discovered" new source materials that further humanize this heroic outlaw.

Peter Carey makes his pseudo-memoir work by delivering just the right balance between poor grammar and word selection, which demonstrate Ned’s poor education, and humor and poetic sensitivity, which demonstrate Ned’s imagination. Ned is a great storyteller, and Peter Carey sees to it that his subject’s near illiteracy doesn’t get in the way of the reader’s enjoyment. In that sense the novel is a tour de force of narrative style.

In today’s world of cultural diversity in medicine, True History of the Kelly Gang presents a fascinating example of a story in which the supposed "facts" may lend themselves to radically different interpretations: in this case, the interpretation of Victorian officialdom, which overreacted to Ned because he threatened the basis of its authority, versus the peasant culture of Australia, which held Ned’s insouciance and disrespect for authority to be his strongest virtues. Which of these opposing cultural perceptions is "right"?

Another medically related issue concerns the relative roles of charisma and right action in producing a "good" doctor. Medical students, house officers, and patients often thrill to the virtuoso performance of a charismatic physician who breaks all the rules of good interpersonal communication and shared decision making. Alternatively, they might have little respect for a doctor who does the right things, but lacks the charismatic spark. What is the right balance? Or is "balance" itself precisely the feature that makes people (and stories) less interesting?


This novel won the Booker Prize.



Place Published

New York



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