For everyone Stories of sisterhood

Authors of 'Outlaw Girls' Emily Gale and Nova Weetman. Photo supplied.

Hiding in one of Australia’s most infamous legends is the story of one ‘extraordinary ordinary’ girl.

When you set out to write historical fiction for children with a feminist lens and real historical figures, the obvious path is to seek out extraordinary girls – to look for achievers who were forgotten too quickly or never found fame.

There’s an appetite for this kind of storytelling, and no shortage of subjects. The last decade has proven this worldwide with multi-million bestsellers like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and every conceivable variation. These non-fiction books have brought historical change-makers and groundbreakers to the fore to inspire young people now.

Seeking out examples of extraordinary girls is what Nova Weetman and I did when we wrote our first historical children’s novel together. We leapt on the story of Fanny Durack – an Australian working-class girl born in 1889 who became the first female gold medallist in the history of Olympic swimming. We gave Fanny a voice in Elsewhere Girls, a fantasy in which she swaps times and bodies with a modern girl from Sydney: think Freaky Friday meets Playing Beatie Bow.

But history lessons for children should be more than a simple recipe of champions, royals, and geniuses. Conscious that girls are vulnerable to perfectionism, and that likeability and success, or thinly drawn victimhood, have been the prerequisites for a place in the history books, we looked for a girl less obvious. Hiding in a story that has dominated Australia’s reflections on its past, we found someone obscured by her famous relative: Kate Kelly, Ned Kelly’s teenage sister, the seventh-born of 12.

History lessons for children should be more than a simple recipe of champions, royals, and geniuses.

Though there has been much speculation about Kate Kelly’s involvement on that fatal night in 1878 that sent Ned, Dan, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne – the Kelly Gang – on the run for two years, it remains shrouded in mystery.

A police officer named Fitzpatrick, paying the Kellys a visit to arrest Dan for horse-stealing, left the house with a skin-deep wound on his wrist that may have been made by a bullet, and a squashed helmet said to have been the work of matriarch Ellen’s fire shovel.

The police made an example of Ellen, sentencing her – and, by extension, her newborn – to three years hard labour for the assault of the barely injured Fitzpatrick. Ned and his gang scarpered, and this pivotal moment is where Kate became the kind of girl that we write stories about.

Left to fend for themselves at Eleven Mile Creek, Kate and her sisters were scrutinised and harassed, subject to night-time raids by the police, dog poisonings, and chases on horseback that caught the attention of the press. There was no way for Ned and the gang to stay hidden, feed and arm themselves, without considerable support. With riding skills to match any man, Ned’s sisters risked freedom and their necks time and again.

In the vast collection of books and films about Ned Kelly, the role of his sisters is underplayed.

Pretty, petite teenager Kate was romanticised by the press, but when the Kelly Gang finally met their end, the papers turned on her in a way that will feel familiar to a modern reader. Thereafter, Kate felt she had no choice but to leave Victoria and change her name.

In the vast collection of books and films about Ned Kelly, the role of his sisters is underplayed. The privilege of the novelist is to create a rich inner world for your characters – in this case, to look through Kate’s eyes and imagine her ambitions and secrets. What was she thinking when she travelled to Melbourne to buy bullets for Ned? What was it like to race on her horse through the night, hunted by police? How did it feel when she discovered her brother’s murderous plan to derail a train?

Kate Kelly isn’t an obvious hero, and much of her life was incredibly sad, but young readers deserve to know about extraordinary ordinary lives as well as queens, gold-medallists and inventors. Outlaw Girls is the story of anyone with the odds stacked against them – our portrait of a girl who is complicated, determined, fiercely loyal, and the master of the vanishing act, with a family name to haunt her.

Outlaw Girls by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman is published by Text.

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