Black Snake: The Real Story of Ned Kelly by Leo Kennedy and Mic Looby is one of those rare occasions when you get a truly fresh insight into familiar history. Driven by the desire to tell the story of his great-grandfather, Sergeant Michael Kennedy, after decades of bullying and seeing the killer of his forebear glorified, Leo Kennedy has produced a marvelous family history. His account of the life of Ned Kelly, however, is a different matter entirely.
Where Black Snake stands head and shoulders above so many other books about this history is in its account of the Kennedy family and the police force. The love for the family history drips off every page where we see their tale unfold. One could be forgiven for thinking that Kennedy and Looby have gone out of their way to paint them in a good light, but there is nothing here that contradicts the information already readily available about the Kennedys. Little anecdotes really bring the story to life like Michael Kennedy digging out and constructing the cellar of the family home and Kennedy and Scanlan ambushing a sheep thief.
Michael Kennedy himself is portrayed in the most heroic way possible. There is nothing on record to suggest that Kennedy was anything other than a model citizen, but at times the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth characterisation used in this book runs the risk of betraying the author’s hero-worship and leading the reader to question how much of what they’re reading is merely romance.
Despite this starry-eyed artifice employed to portray the hero of the story, we learn a lot in these sections about the family and the unenviable lifestyle of the police of the late 19th century. These are points that have not really been featured in any significant way in Kelly biographies to date. Seeing how the dire situation the police found themselves in impacted on law enforcement portrayed in a Kelly book is refreshing. Many times we see the lack of training, the stretched resources and the kinds of dangerous situations police would find themselves in illustrated clearly and vividly. That there is no moral grandstanding in these passages, for the most part, is what makes them so good.
Had Black Snake been just about the Kennedys with Ned Kelly only popping up in relation to the Stringybark Creek tragedy, this would be an essential text to illustrate the other side of the story. However this content only comprises around half of the book and what balance it creates in these passages is completely dwarfed by the remaining content.
Alas, where the book falls down, and it is a significant pitfall, is its depiction of the other side of the story it tells. The title of the book says everything you need to know about the author’s position on its subject. The attempts to illustrate how despicable the Kellys and their ilk were rely very heavily on dramatisation based on little information. For example, referring to the Ah On incident (wherein Aaron Sherritt and Joe Byrne were charged with injuring a Chinese man with rocks) as evidence that the Greta Mob indiscriminately attacked the Chinese and indigenous people as a matter of course. Furthermore where he feels that he hasn’t made them out to be villainous or cretins he tries to attack their masculinity by referring to Steve Hart frequently riding around in a dress and gang members dancing with other men instead of women at Glenrowan, implying homosexuality. Such vitriol is lazy and draws on just enough factual information to make the conclusions believable. One can forgive Kennedy for wanting to push this interpretation forward given his past. The public perception of Kelly was (and in many cases still is) quite warped thanks to decades of myth-making and regurgitation of half-truths as fact, but you don’t remedy one warped viewpoint by pushing more falsehoods in the opposite direction. What a pity that this should be the focus of the book – not an elevation of the Kennedys but a degradation of the Kellys. No doubt this is largely shaped by the works of Doug Morrissey, who provides a glowing assessment of the book in his foreword and whose books have been referred to heavily throughout Black Snake.
As for the man behind the words on the page, Mic Looby does an excellent job of dramatising the information provided by Kennedy, really engaging the reader. It is clear that he had a strong connection to Kennedy during the writing process and portrays his interpretation of history clearly and consistently, even if it isn’t one everyone would agree with. Looby’s extensive writing background in the media and journalism is put to good use here and is undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the tome. Despite the often difficult content, a reader should have no issue devouring the writing the way they would with, say, the work of Peter FitzSimons.
In a nutshell, Black Snake is a tender love letter to ancestors who have inspired a strong moral understanding while also being primarily a scathing character assassination against the man who caused so much heartache in the family for generations.
It is heartening to think that descendants are finally giving themselves and their forebears a voice. In the case of the gallant Sergeant Kennedy, the release of this book just in time for the 140th anniversary of his slaughtering at Stringybark Creek could not be more appropriate.
This is a book that will repulse the majority of pro-Kelly die-hards, be championed by anti-Kelly crusaders as a masterpiece and met with disappointment by anyone looking for a balanced and objective approach to the subject. However, for someone only just getting into the story it is highly recommended reading, if only for the fact that it elevates the Kennedys beyond merely being the names of victims, but should be paired with something more nuanced as a counterpoint.
Leo Kennedy deserves kudos on the admirable research into his family history and the history of the Victoria Police that has gone into this book. It is no trivial task to piece together so much information where so little has been written on it before. Grab a copy and judge for yourself.
A massive thank you to Affirm Press for providing Black Snake: The Real Story of Ned Kelly for the purposes of this review. The book is available now in stores across Australia.