In America, Ned Kelly needs an introduction that Australian readers would never require: Kelly plays much the same role in that country's national conscious that Jesse James has played here. An underclass-avenging, frontier-outlaw folk hero to some, a psychopathic killer to others, Kelly grew up poor and Irish in a country that valued neither quality, and he died famous at 26 after battling the police while outfitted in a homemade suit of armor. The details and significance of his life in between have long been subject to debate, but with True History Of The Kelly Gang, novelist Peter Carey (Oscar And Lucinda) lets a fictional version of Kelly set the record straight in his own words. Written as a memoir from Kelly to the daughter he never met, True History envisions untamed 19th-century Australia in a manner reminiscent of the revisionist American Westerns of the '60s and '70s: as a harsh, uncompromising land where the rudiments of civilization barely mask, and frequently enable, a barely hidden savagery. If anything, Carey exceeds the Westerns. Kelly's early years are occupied with a half-Freudian, half-Darwinian fight for survival. The eldest male of a family in a land with few available females, he constantly struggles to keep his widowed mother away from the men who greedily circle her neglected, financially troubled farm. By pointing Kelly toward crime, however, one of these men opens up new horizons for a life severely limited by prejudice and economic difficulties. Kelly, in justifying himself, is quick to point out the inequity of that life. Carey takes a while to get to Kelly's life of crime, which serves his story well. Not only does this leave him time to develop his protagonist—a coarse but generous man whose rough circumstances have yet to erase his youthful naiveté—but it also emphasizes the briefness of the Kelly Gang's exploits and the media's importance in creating the Kelly myth. By the time Ned becomes a fixture in Australian newspapers, his legend is already out of his control, as he desperately attempts to get his version of the story out to the public. Carey's sympathetic but unsparing novel finally gives Kelly the chance, in the process furthering the debate with a look at how legends form and what it means when they endure.

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