Title: Kate Kelly: The True Story of Ned Kelly’s Little Sister
Author: Rebecca Wilson
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Published: February 2021
Kate Kelly is an immersive creative nonfiction account of the life and death of Kate Kelly, sister of notorious bushranger Ned Kelly. A talented horsewoman, mother, and intelligent criminal, Kate was often overshadowed by the fame of her brother. However, she was an integral member of the Kelly gang. Rebecca Wilson has painted an intimate and detailed portrait of Kate’s life in the late 1800s. Interspersed between historical facts is a well-written plotline, taking events from Kate’s life and rounding them out with characterisation and setting. We see her grow and develop into a mature young woman, enduring heartbreak and encountering struggles that aren’t necessarily exclusive to an outlaw lifestyle.
Wilson approaches the subject matter of Kelly’s life and the way she is treated by others (particularly men and the local media) in a detailed and meaningful way; it is not surface-level research, and full articles are often included to round out certain statements and chapters. I really enjoyed the inclusion of historical documents and images, as it felt like a more immersive reading experience. We see Kate through the lens of her achievements as a woman in colonial Australia, and how her intelligence and talents were of great benefit to the Kelly Gang. Furthermore, her mistreatment by men in her life is not omitted or glossed over.
Setting plays a huge part in this book, and the author has portrayed colonial life in New South Wales vividly and with great attention to detail. If you’re a fan of Hallie Rubenhold’s descriptions of Victorian life in The Five: The untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper, you are likely to enjoy this book. Both titles are also similar from a feminist standpoint, telling the stories of women often overshadowed in history due to their association with notorious men.
Wilson also addresses Kate’s death and the suspicions surrounding it. In fact, it is the opening scene in the book and is quite confronting to read. The decision to structure the book this way is outstanding, as this opening scene adds an air of mystery to Kate’s life and engages the reader in a way that is more typical of fiction stories. Wilson has an excellent grasp of storytelling techniques and has used them to her full advantage for this work of narrative nonfiction.
Whilst the Kate Kelly is mainly about Kate, we also get glimpses of the Kelly Gang’s criminal activity and gunfights with the police. I found myself emotionally attached to some of the ‘characters’ and furiously turned pages to find out if they survived high-stakes battles, and when they didn’t, Kate’s grief was palpable and deeply affecting.
This is one of my favourite nonfiction books of this year, and if you are a fan of historical nonfiction with a crime twist, Rebecca Wilson’s Kate Kelly is ideal for you.