Reviewed by Jack Cameron Stanton
Mrs Kelly: The astonishing life of Ned Kelly’s mother by Grantlee Kieza is a staggering accomplishment that can’t be missed by history buffs and story lovers alike. Recently, the right history books have enjoyed serious commercial success – the likes of Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire, The Silk Road by Peter Frankopan, and even Sapiens by Yuhal Noah Harari spring to mind – and Grantlee’s latest is a welcome addition to the tribe.
Ellen Kelly comes to Australia from Ireland and almost immediately experiences the brunt of life’s cruelty, turning her to morally murky ways of keeping her family afloat (and out of prison) – although she quite often fails at the latter.
And Mrs Kelly’s misfortunes are indeed vast: she loses children to her violent criminal world, to sickness and injustice, and after her husband Red Kelly dies from drink and melancholy it’s up to her only son Ned (aged twelve) to become the man of the house. But it doesn’t last. At such a young age he soon joins the notorious bandit Harry Power to rob and pillage the bush tracks, drifting in and out of prison numerous times before his eighteenth birthday and engaging in bloody fistfights in the forgotten back rooms of dusky pubs, and all the while building his reputation – for all the wrong reasons. The rest, as they say, is history.
But Mrs Kelly is fatalistic about her son’s grievances. The world has offered her no sanctuary from its harshness: she sells contraband liquor to get by; has never made enough money to feed her starving family; and the criminality of her son seems, at best, a logical conclusion. Without any moralising or judgment, Grantlee guides us through the unforgiving Australian penal system, the vicious wrongdoing of Ned Kelly, and the terrible atmosphere of fear and violence that fostered such madness – and the best part is, I feel, how readable it all is.
It’s hard, having finished reading the book, to imagine Ned Kelly as the rose-tinted Australian antihero that he often appears to be in our minds, or bush poetry, or beer cans, especially after witnessing the extent of murder and carnage the good old bushranger was responsible for, which included petty bush heists, reckless police assassination, and armed bank robbery.
It’s during these moments of tension when it doesn’t matter whether you’re reading fact or fiction; it’s nail-biting all the same. The story has great energy and focus, never straying too far from the Kelly family but giving enough scope to understand the world they inhabit.
But it takes a special kind of writer to breathe life into history, and Grantlee Kieza has once again demonstrated his prowess as an historian and storyteller. Ellen Kelly lived an extraordinary life, confirming that old adage about truth being stranger than fiction, and Grantlee’s witty, economic writing captures every moment without the foggy uhms and ahhs often found in history books.
And if you’re anything like me then this is the kind of history you’ll love. For the longest time I couldn’t read history books simply because I lacked the patience and pedantry to absorb fact after fact, detail after detail. But thankfully Grantlee has done the hard yards for us and written precisely what we all desire: a story complete with a flair for drama, suspense, and twists.
This book is emotional, perceptive, and exhilarating all at once – using the Kelly family’s descent to criminality through the oppressive forces of colonial Australia’s injustices, heavy-handed police forces, and, of course, the outlaw escapades of her renegade son, Ned, to quite cleverly trace Australia’s origins and evolution toward modern society.
Within these pages is a portrait of a stoic, courageous, extraordinary woman who championed a world of misery by tackling it head on, totally unafraid. I’m seriously impressed by Grantlee’s storytelling power and guarantee you will be, too.