Ned Kelly
Updated April, 2006

Ned Kelly

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Book News - Review (For summary - click here)

Ned Kelly Friendship
THE FATAL FRIENDSHIP story of the murder of Aaron Sherritt, and the friendship between Kelly, Byrne and Sherritt.

Ian Jones

Publisher: Lothian Books
RRP:
$35.00 (*Hunt around, available in Big W for $22.95, 14th Feb)
Publication: Available in book stores now (re-release) Paperback

REVIEW


By now most Kelly students have, of course, read Ian Jones' best-known book, A Short Life. 'The Fatal Friendship', on the other hand, seemingly did not sell as well and never went into reprint. This book is predominantly about Joe and Aaron and so, when first released in 1992, under the title 'The Friendship that destroyed Ned Kelly', it probably didn't catch the eye of the average Ned enthusiast. This is doubtless the reason that, not long after its release, one could find it reduced in the bargain bin at Target. Since that time interest in Ned has boomed and a copy of this now widely known author's first Kelly book has become sought after, but tricky to find. The fact that 'Friendship' was overlooked initially is quite disappointing, as quite apart from being an interesting topic in its own right, Joe and Aaron's relationship is a piece in the puzzle - a pivotal factor in Ned's life and ultimate destruction. Despite the focus not being on Ned, this book is nevertheless very relevant to his life and worth reading even if one is not initially as interested in other members of the Kelly story.

Apart from the change of title (Jones apparently wasn't keen on the original) and a revamp of the book's cover, there are really only a few small text changes from the first edition. The only change that really stands out is an addition to the text in chapter 16, where Jones has added his idea of the kind of thoughts Aaron may have had in the seconds before he died.

Just as in A Short Life, Jones's style of writing in this book is easy to read and flows well. He is a skilled story-teller and one finds oneself having finished the book all too quickly. Jones has studied Joe and Aaron in detail, and includes a large body of information in this book, some of which he obtained orally from distant relatives and their acquaintances. Throughout the thorough presentation of historical facts, he also adds his own personal interpretations, opinions, and theories about Joe and Aaron. Jones's more recent comments on ironoutlaw have revealed that his personal feelings lean very favorably towards Aaron, but are not sympathetic to Joe, and the tone throughout Friendship certainly reflects those personal biases. In that context, the book poses two interesting questions: was Joe and Aaron's relationship really as people of the time saw it, and, was Aaron truly a traitor?

Jones's study of Aaron is very interesting. In previous Kelly books Aaron was most often recorded as the worst kind of person, i.e., a traitor and 'double agent', friend to no one and enemy to most. In Friendship Jones offers the reader a different way to consider Aaron. He presents Aaron as a tough 'bushman' who was a somewhat enigmatic and complicated man, a boyhood friend to Joe and, most notably - a loyal one. Jones includes many quotes from Aaron's contemporaries, which paint a remarkable picture for us; he includes descriptions of Aaron as being 'guarded and cunning', 'shiftless' and 'flash'. When one reads about Aaron in detail and looks at his sometimes highly baffling behavior during 1878 - 1880, one realises that, over a century later, he still remains an enigma, as it is nearly impossible to try and comprehend the workings of his mind. Over recent years researchers have wondered why, if still loyal to the gang, he behaved so secretively, what on earth he hoped to achieve by his less than straightforward dealings with those around him, and why he seemingly never defended himself against the tide of negative opinion that perceived him as untrustworthy (even after he pronounced himself to Spt. Hare as 'a dead man now'). Nevertheless Jones has obviously worked hard to try and understand Aaron despite his incongruities, and on the surface he presents his theories quite persuasively, although without much in the way of supportive evidence. It is probably Aaron's contradictory and apparently consciously foolhardy behavior that is the key to what makes his story so compelling. For whether the reader concludes that Aaron was a traitor, or decides otherwise, he is undoubtedly a fascinating historical figure.

Aaron's best friend - and murderer - Joe Byrne, is no less interesting, but his behavior is more straight forward and thus easier for the historian to interpret. History shows Joe as earnest, steadfastly loyal and, despite his debilitating drug addiction, a man who did not falter in either his reliability or constancy. Jones tells the reader that Joe was a ladies man and something of a scholar. He provides contemporary quotes (sourced mainly from Max Brown's research) that consistently describe Joe as being 'quiet', 'a little old-fashioned and grave in his ways', and a 'nice, well behaved lad'. Like others, Jones believes that Joe not only handwrote the Cameron and Jerilderie letters, but also had a significant influence in their content. Jones shows us that Ned trusted and respected Joe enormously, and that Joe was being loyal in return. Joe, later proven to be true to his word, once declared in a letter to Aaron that he would 'rather die at Ned's side' than betray him.

Jones attempts to explain why Joe took Aaron's perceived betrayal to heart, and how, from Joe's perspective, he believed his childhood mate had turned on him without reason or explanation. Jones asserts however that, despite appearances, Aaron did remain loyal to Joe and even tried to protect him. Aaron evidently went so far as to make a pact with the devil - who in this instance took the form of Joe's enemies - the police. Aaron purportedly agreed to help the police capture the gang - on the condition that they would not shoot Joe if it could be avoided. In this, Jones tries to convince the reader that Aaron's intentions were worthy, but he was simply naïve to imagine the police would seriously try to avoid killing any Kelly gang member. Whatever Aaron's intentions were in fact (and no one knows them), his contemporaries were convinced he was not to be trusted. Whether or not Aaron was loyal to Joe, Joe did not believe he was so, to such an extent that he felt the murder of Aaron was justifiable, perhaps even obligatory (i.e. a matter of rough justice).

As with any book that aims at factual accuracy through credible sources, the sources for Friendship are also worth reading in detail. Jones was fortunate enough to be able to include a number of personal opinions from members of the Byrne and Sherritt families, and he has also resourced extensive police and newspaper archives.

There is, however, one important area of criticism that might be offered in regard to the author's research and conclusions. Seemingly Jones's believes that Joe's respectability was a façade, and he apparently came to his conclusion about Joe's character based predominantly on a source whose reliability is questionable. Jones has used opinions from Joe's 93 year old sister, Elly, to form his conclusions about Joe's character. Yet in fact, very notably, Elly is quoted by Ian himself in the book as saying "I can't remember Joe at all." (more info on memory). Additionally, of concern to this reviewer is Jones's tendency to disregard any information that contradicts his personal theories.

Yet whether or not Jones makes a convincing case for his theory that serious, quiet, academically inclined Joe had 'control' over Aaron, an older, bigger, stronger boy, who was reputedly 'cunning', is entirely something that the individual reader must decide. I was not convinced, particularly on closer examination of his notes and sources. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Jones' personal interpretation of their relationship, their histories are comprehensively documented in The Fatal Friendship. Jones has made a pioneering effort with this work and through it he has offered an opportunity for all Kelly students to consider Joe and Aaron's relationship for themselves, and to that end I encourage people to read this book with an open mind. If a reader starts with the belief that Aaron was a traitor, and his or her belief does not waver after reading this book, this belief is nevertheless likely to be challenged to some extent. Such challenges are invited by the very nature of historic research so that, ultimately, the most convincing picture of the subject emerges. I have suggested where one such challenge might begin, and Friendship is a great springboard for any reader interested in his or her own research, particularly in regard to Jones's two main questions noted above.

Conclusions:

The Fatal Friendship is a good read and great companion book to 'A Short Life'. The work gives us an interesting point of view from which to ponder the lives of two friends who, each in his own way, had a significant influence on Ned Kelly. But it does need to be read with the understanding that its author's personal speculations are included indistinguishably within the presentation of historical facts, and it appears that he doesn't always assess all the available evidence impartially. It is essential therefore when reading this book that the reader constantly compare the text against the 'notes' section, as many statements in the book are made without providing any supportive evidence or suggestion of the author's sources.
I suggest this book for Kellyana collectors.

 

 

Review first published 26th March 2003

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