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Sunday, January 25, 2015

My Review of Michael Heffernan's novel "Bury My Mare at Glenrowan" [Sharon Hollingsworth]

Once again I was searching through Amazon books for something new to read  when I ran across a work of historical fiction called "Bury My Mare at Glenrowan" by Michael Heffernan which had been published back in 2014 in both print and e-book versions (I paid $9.99 for the e-book version. Also, remember that you don't need a Kindle to read the e-book, you can get the free app for PC at Amazon to read Kindle books on your desktop). Of course, my very first thought was that the title reminded me of the book "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" (and it is referred to in the book).

The author, who is a lawyer (and not related to the other author named Michael Heffernan who is an American University professor - just an FYI for those who might get google-happy) has had a life-long love of horses and you can really tell it from the way he describes the horses and the relationships that develop between horse and rider. In the preface he tells about his background and says that the book is pro-Kelly. He has some interesting insights into the Kelly gang and the outbreak and I like his take on Ned and self-defense at SBC. He also tells about the champion horse on the cover and all of the horses he has known and loved. One interesting turn is how all the chapters are named after song titles (though I was not familiar with a few of them). Also at the start of each chapter are fascinating tidbits from other books that dovetail with the chapter's overall theme.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, here is the synopsis from the website for the book -

"There are many books about Kelly. This is the first about Kelly and his grey mare, Music. Music came to him out of the scrub in the last moments of the Glenrowan siege to offer him his last chance of escape when every gun and rifle was aimed at him. This story tells the reader what part this gallant mare played in his short but drama filled life in words that a horseman can understand."

There is also this important bit from the book:

"This novel is a work of fiction despite the use in some cases of real names which feature strictly as a dramatic device. All characters are the products of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental."

As the author stated, there are some real names used for the characters in the Kelly saga that we know, but there are changes for some that I found, such as Judge Barry being Judge Barrington, the schoolteacher Curnow is now Kershaw, Aaron Sherritt is Declan Cassidy, Belle is now Angel, Jane Jones is now Gloria (G-L-O-R-I-A...yes, they go there!) Jones, and Upjohn is now Updike. George King, who married Ned's mother Ellen, is now Roy Kingsly, the pseudonym of a man (Henry Darrington) on the run as a deserter from the US Army.

As far as other characters go we are introduced to Valerie, a brilliant but troubled young woman who was a ward of the Quinn clan. We meet Soapy a very wise and wily Aboriginal man who is friends with Ned. There is "Tennessee" Quinn who became enamoured with the culture of the American Indians after Roy gave him an old army manual about them. He, with the help of his mother Mrs Quinn, wind up making Ned a ceremonial War Bonnet made from feathers from an eagle callously shot down by Stagger Lee, a mulatto sharp shooter/bounty hunter that has come after Darrington/Kingsly. There is Gong who is a progressive thinking young Oriental woman who wants to learn to ride horses and to be more like the Australians than like her Chinese family (to be honest, I would have been happier with her having a much smaller storyline as much of it didn't resonate with me and instead would have liked to have seen Joe Byrne's ties to the Chinese community explored a bit more deeply. Would actually have loved to have had more Joe overall, to be honest.). There is also Kev Kavanagh, the top driver for Cobb & Co who has a great love for horses as well as a profound knowledge and understanding of them that rivals Ned's.There are a few other peripheral players that are way out on the rim, but the characters that I enjoyed the most were the ones of the local police sergeant and his studious clerk, Sarge and Cyril (AKA Four Eyes). They were really a hoot. Now, they really did resonate with me. I enjoyed their bantering relationship more than any in the whole book. Too bad there is not a book called "The Adventures of Sarge & Cyril." I would buy it in a heartbeat!

There are a few timeline shifts, also. Roy was on the run from the Army due to his desertion during the Battle of Little Bighorn which was in 1876, but we know that Ellen Kelly married her second husband George King in 1874. Also the book has Ned and Kate as both being teenagers with Joe Byrne being older than Ned. There are events that did happen in the Kelly saga and some that didn't (like the gang bailing up coaches) but we just go with it as it is historical FICTION.

The book begins with an Army man named Henry Darrington having what he deems to be a prophetic nightmare about a battle with Indians in which everyone in his troop perishes. He decides that he is NOT going to die, that the dream was a warning for him, so he starts to get himself and his horse, Blue Doggy, in prime condition with endurance and other training so they can both escape the carnage he knows is coming. The dream comes to pass at the Battle of the Little Bighorn with Custer in command. Darrington, who had prepared himself was able to narrowly escape a brutal death. His travels eventually take him to Australia, accompanied by Blue Doggy, and a former Civil War veteran turned singer named Bobby McGee. (at least they weren't busted flat in Baton Rouge waitin' for a train!)

Meanwhile back at the "ranch," Ned Kelly's father died after getting kicked in the head by a skittish mare. That mare is taken to live at the Quinn homestead and was mated with a stallion which produced an exceptional foal, which Ned named Music. He spent much time raising and training her and had a special rapport with her.

Later, we first meet Harry Power who ran up on the teenaged Ned and Kate who were out fishing with the traps in hot pursuit of him and Constable Fitzpatrick was one of the pursuers! He gets fresh-mouthed with Kate and she hits him with a freshly caught fish. Harry gets away from the traps this time and shows up at Red's funeral and wake to give Ellen Kelly a big wad of cash to tide her over and suggested that she build a pub. (We know she used her home as a sly grog shanty, but here she did as Harry said and built one up right). She made a sturdy pub with a painting of Custer's Last Stand (what are the odds?) on the wall along with paintings of wild west heroes, Indian chiefs and confederate generals. I loved this bit from the book: "Joe said it was important to have batwing doors and bought some heavy duty hinges from the town hardware store. With the doors installed he would swagger in leaving them swinging as he slouched at the bar and banged his fist down for service." I can just see that!

Ned joins up with Harry Power and they bail up coaches and Ned even spanked(!) one of the young women who would not comply with them. Harry and Ned even dance with the passengers as one of them plays a tune. Eventually, Harry wound up being captured and of course he thought Ned had dobbed him in.

After they got Harry, the traps set a trap by having someone befriend Ned and telling him he lost his horse and could he find it and hold for him. When Ned rides the found horse to town Lonigan (instead of Hall) tried to shoot him but failed and then we had the infamous "blackballing" incident. Ned was gaoled, his horses, including Music were confiscated by the police and sold to Cobb & Co. for a nice profit. In gaol Ned is beaten up by Harry Power and a couple of his prison yard mates. He then goes on to serve time on the prison ship.

While Ned is away from home Henry Darrington, now known as Roy Kingsly, finds his way to Ellen's pub and into her heart and bed. Ned comes home from prison to find his mother married to this flashy American with even flashier ideas. Roy, ever the showman, decides to start a wild west show to make money. As the book states "fortunately for Roy in the Quinn and Kelly clans along with their motley friends and relatives, he had a ready made circus." Roy took on the persona of Buffalo Bill as Master of Ceremonies, Ellen played a comical Calamity Jane, with Ned playing a horse thief that was hanged for his crime on a makeshift scaffold. You can imagine the disarray and craziness that ensued with that mob of Quinns and Kellys and their sidekicks being involved in a mock battle. It sorta reminded me of the scene in Gladiator when the "wrong" side won the historical battle in the arena.

Dan Kelly is shown as a sensitive young man and different from the rest. He loves to cultivate roses and he made some garlands from wild flowers he had in his saddlebag to give to several of the Chinese girls when Joe wanted his compatriots to meet some of his celestial friends. The book describes Dan in a beautiful way: "In his daily existence he wore a permanent, dreamy expression, much like the sober, arctic white rose sitting quietly amongst its robust, brightly coloured cousins." Steve on the other hand, is seen as rough and tumble, and the showdown scene between him and his father when he decided to leave home is really an ugly one.

The Fitzpatrick incident occurred, sending Ellen to gaol and Ned and Dan on the run. They were joined by Joe and Steve and as the Kelly gang tried to rob a Cobb & Co coach and they find Music as the lead horse. They take her (and give all the loot back that they took) and Ned tells the driver, Kev Kavanagh, who had trained her and taken such good care of her, that if anything happens to him that he will see to it that his friends take the horse to Kev in Melbourne.

More things happen that lead to Glenrowan (and it was beautiful how Ned cradled a dying Joe) and Ned's imprisonment where Kev visits him and tells him he will take good care of Music for him. Ned asks Kev to be sure and have Music buried at Glenrowan at the scene of battle once her time comes. Kev agrees, and when the time comes (sadly, rather unexpectedly) he has quite a race on his hands to get the body there with an over-zealous, enraged, crazed, foaming at the mouth (as was his horse as he had nearly ridden the poor beast to death) Sgt Steele on his trail. Steele gets a swift comeuppance that was a long time coming.

I didn't want to fill in all the details of every exciting event that happened, you just have to read the book to get all the spoilers.

The style of writing really captured my imagination, it was almost like watching a movie playing out. It was very easy to get pulled into this topsy-turvy timeline-skewered world. You felt like you were really there at times standing just to the side out of frame taking it all in. It was very easy to lose yourself in this. Prepare for some quiet time to settle in and read and enjoy the journey.

Be aware that there are a few erotic passages in the book. For those who get easily offended, it is best to be forewarned. (Gosh, I almost typed in forewarmed!) Among the passages is one where Ned and Valerie make love in a church, also Kev's wife is caught out doing the naughty with another man in a church as well. Then we have Tennessee Quinn and Gong going at it in the water, then we have Angel and Declan getting really wild with their vigorous lovemaking and she even does it with one of the traps under the bed after Joe and Dan came to dispatch her husband. Then, last, but not least, we have Mrs. Jones and Ned having a bit of a saucy romp in the station-master's office. (Too bad that the song title "Me and Mrs Jones" was not used, or was that just an American hit?) All in good fun but not for the uptight as stated above or for young kids.

This book was 456 pages long. I was a little daunted to take it on at first due to the length, but once I started reading it the pages flew by and I was done in a couple of days. Oddly, despite the length of it, once I got done I wanted to read more!

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