Nine years before Peter Carey published his Booker-winner The True History of the Kelly Gang, he gave a cover endorsement to Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine, claiming it would ‘forever change the way we see Ned Kelly’. With hindsight, Carey could also have been writing the creative brief for his own, later, achievement.
But back in 1991, the most remarkable thing about the Ned Kelly story was that our best-known folk hero had not received more attention from novelists. The only significant work of literary fiction prior to this was Jean Bedford’s Sister Kate (1982), inspired by the story of Ned’s sister.
Perhaps taking on a legend had seemed too daunting. Sticking to lesser-known historical characters leaves an author less likely to encounter criticism from persnickety historical pedants. Or perhaps there just seemed little left to say in the wake of the numerous non-fiction accounts available.
Certainly the Kelly story has all the elements of great tragedy and high drama, whichever side you are on – not to mention sectarian prejudice, rural poverty, personal betrayal, brutality and police incompetence. (A Royal Commission was held into the police response to the Kelly Outbreak shortly after Ned was hanged and, as Ian Jones wryly points out in his biography Ned Kelly: a short life, it may be that the Kelly Gang’s most tangible legacy was the reforms subsequently made to the Victorian Police.)
Out of all this blazes Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine, a slender, vivid, intensely intimate novel that reminds us that the Kelly story is the story of a young man: Ned was just 25 years old when he died.
The novel’s focal point is the Gang’s final, fateful night at Annie Jones’ hotel in Glenrowan, as Ned, his brother Dan, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne wait to ambush the police in a final showdown. Drewe has gifted the hotel and its hostages with a travelling circus scooped up by the outlaws along the way, and the novel opens as Ned paces restlessly outside the hotel – an unconscious mirror of the ageing circus lion, also pacing restlessly in his cage. It’s a potent image of two trapped creatures – one imprisoned by the bars of a cage, the other by a narrowing set of circumstances that have left him nowhere to run. What is so striking about Ned Kelly in these moments is how powerless he is, how dependent on others – the arrival of the police train, the rising of the Peak contingent – to make the next move.
Early in the evening, Ned is sanguine, holding court with his hostages, dancing with pretty young Jenny Jones, confident that all his plans are in place: the traitor Aaron Sherritt shot, the railway line from Benalla to Glenrowan torn up to derail the approaching police train. But as the night wears on into morning, then late afternoon, it becomes clear that events are not going to go to plan at all.
As Ned waits vainly for the signal from his accomplices that the train has been derailed, he reflects on the events that have led him to this moment, sometimes aloud in anecdotes to the sequestered townsfolk, at others to himself. The night at Glenrowan is the novel’s hinge, and from it swing out flashbacks into the past, some told in the first person by Ned himself, others in an intimate third person.
This intimacy gives us access to his memories – it was his father who called him ‘Our Sunshine’ one timeless childhood afternoon – to his passionate anger against the police for what they have done to his family, in particular his mother, and to what it feels like to inhabit his very flesh. Here is a man who can describe himself as feeling like ‘a piece of gristle’; a man who, on finally reaching a place of momentary safety after galloping through bushfires for several days, fears to wash off the ‘coat of blood’ that covers him, afraid that it may be all that it is holding him together.
But there are also the moments of almost larrikin daring – of being ‘the man in charge of Death and Money’ during bank robberies. There is an urgency to much of this novel, even in its most languidly sensual moments, that drives events inevitably towards Glenrowan.
While never intended to be the kind of comprehensive reimagining of the life that Carey essayed in The True History of the Kelly Gang, read Our Sunshine for how it might have felt to be Ned Kelly, for the sting of injustice, and for the thrill of being there.
Edition reviewed is the 1991 Picador paperback ISBN 0330272470
Our Sunshine is currently published by Penguin Books in the following editions:
Paperback ISBN 9780143204763 216pp $9.99
Ebook ISBN 9781742531496
If you would like to see if it is available through Newtown Library, click here.