Kate Kelly by Rebecca Wilson

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

I began reading this study with high hopes. What an interesting person Kate was! Her family is comprehensively described in history and, to my mind after numerous assays by various scholars, probably accurately. Soon I discovered, despite the sub-heading emblazoned on the cover viz. The True Story of Ned Kelly’s Little Sister, that the story is fiction. This book is an imaginative account of Kate Kelly’s life in those harsh times of late eighteenth-century Australia.

The book is fiction but contains enough factual material to give an air of authenticity. Rebecca Wilson was born in Forbes, an area long associated with the mysterious Kate. She has done her research. Kate Kelly’s story is a careful, thorough, piece of research that quickly absorbs the reader’s interest.

An unusual object floated in the water. At first glance, someone might have thought the jumble of black and white was a pelican. The pale white flesh of a woman’s lower back revealed itself to the sky. Her black dress had worked its way up and jellyfished over her head (3).

Now, that’s an opening paragraph! It’s a model for young writers. Rebecca makes no attempt to tell us about the weather, or the movement of the light. That comes later, another three paragraphs later. She’s going to tell us about Kate Kelly, who is dead…so she shows us her still body, in context, with graphic choice of detail. The dress jellyfishing, the stockings and empty beer bottles in the next paragraph, paint a sad picture, the end of what we suspect must have been a sad life. “Her body drifted in the lagoon for eight long days, waiting for someone to care” (3).

Rebecca Wilson has told her readers early in her story that Kate had moved from Victoria to New South Wales and was living under the name Ada Foster. The visit of Mr Cole of the Bohemian Show was the situation Wilson gives us to open a window into the stress under which Kate was labouring and the type of response an uneducated girl will give when pushed beyond endurance. The language Kate uses is the patois her family had used all their lives:

Why did you bring this here? You don’t know nothin’. Nothin’ at all! This is an outrage! Yer a rotten mongrel! You rat-faced coward, Cole (75).

Rebecca Wilson has the ability and the intelligence to tell a story, but her writing is not without blemish. Time after time she falls into the habit of telling her readers rather than letting the story show the events. For example, “the unfolding Kelly events were making headlines and history, defining a new concept of celebrity and fame, and captivating generations of spectators globally” (135). It is easy, but uninteresting, to tell readers such information when a little thought could have made it more impactful. Moreover, this sounds like a judgment that was probably uttered long after the Kellys were long gone into history.

A further weakness occurs in these snippets. ‘The nautical giant’ (266) (a steamship); ‘Kate’s arrival made a splash in the papers’ (266); ‘his shameless and sensational spruiking at the tent entrance lured the rustics’ (241) – it’s all a bit over the top. But, beneath the surface, I sense a writer who might yet build on the skills she has now, and absorb stylistic ideas from established writers, in order to produce high quality, mature work.

Kate Kelly

(2021)

By Rebecca Wilson

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-76087-967-9

$32.99; 408 pp

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