One would hope a book written about race relations thirty years ago would be irrelevant and possibly dated today. Unfortunately, Keneally's stunning indictment of turn-of-the-century racism, in this case that of Anglo settlers towards Australia's native aborigines, remains vibrant and powerful, even after these many years. Literally timeless in its message and articulate and graceful in its execution, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith could have been written about many minorities subjugated during many periods in many different countries.
The basic story is not unique. Half aborigine and half Anglo, Jimmie Blacksmith grows up in aborigine culture. Because he is light-skinned, however, he is able to obtain jobs on white landholdings more readily than other aborigines, and there he is exposed to Anglo culture--with all its stated, good intentions, but its sometimes patronizing attitudes and selfish goals. After being worked hard and cheated from his earnings repeatedly, Jimmie snaps, visiting on his former employers the kind of "justice" which has so often been dealt to their employees. As vigilantes and police join forces to apprehend Jimmie, we see all the conflicting attitudes toward life and justice which undermine the creation of a unified, fair society.
The throbbing drumbeat of Jimmie's chants and Keneally's insistent narrative pace combine with our revulsion toward Jimmie's actions, to catch us up in the emotions of both the pursuers and the pursued. Our understanding of Jimmie and our empathy with him make us long for his redemption at the same time that we are anxious for justice to take place. Keneally's resolution is brilliant, fittingly combining the best elements of both of Jimmie's worlds. This is a wonderful novel which deals with a complex and sensitive subject without polemics or convenient, easy solutions, and it's as relevant today as it was when it was written. Mary Whipple
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is the 7th novel by Thomas Keneally. Set around the time of Federation, it tells the story of half-caste Jimmie Blacksmith, initiated into tribal manhood by his aboriginal elders, he was, at the same time, taught by a Methodist minister. Under the minister's influence, his criteria denoting the value of human existence were home, hearth, wife and land. And a white wife, say a farm girl, would mean his offspring would be quarter-caste, theirs but an eighth. Jimmie works hard to achieve his goals, but fails through no fault of his own, and the situation becomes explosive and violent. Keneally tells a great yarn, and manages to deftly convey the forces that battle inside Jimmie, as well as the attitude of whites to blacks and of blacks to whites at that time in Australian history. The story is told mainly from Jimmie's perspective, but also from the view of the Methodist minister, the hangman, Jimmie's maternal uncle Tabidgi and the fiancé of one of Jimmie's victims. The debate about Federation rumbles in the background. Excellent prose, vivid descriptions, characters of depth and authentic dialogue. It is no wonder this tragic tale has become an Australian classic.
on 4 January 2012
The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally is based on the life of an Australian bushranger called Jimmy Governor. Fictionalised as Jimmy Blacksmith, the character takes several steps down the social ladder in terms of his name, but remains at the bottom of the pile in reality by virtue of being not only black, but also an Aborigine. As Jimmy Blacksmith, however, the character is not without skills. He speaks English and can build a uniform fence as strong and even as anyone. He can work as hard and deliver as much as any hired hand, except, of course, by definition.
Thomas Keneally's novel is highly successful in its presentation of white people's assumptions of superiority. Knowing that they occupy a level much higher up the Victorian pyramid of life that has God and The Queen at the top, they can be imperially confident that anything they might think or do must necessarily outshine what the likes of Jimmy Blacksmith can achieve. When reality suggests a contradiction, then their position of privilege allows them to change the rules in order to belittle achievement and deny results.
To label such attitudes as merely racist is to miss much of the point. These whites, always eager to proffer judgment at the turn of twentieth century Australia, did not regard their attitudes as based on race. The relevant word was surely not race, but species, since the indigenous population was seen as something less than human. So even when Jimmy Blacksmith displays complete competence, strength, endurance or cooperation, even if he becomes a Methodist Christian, marries a white woman according to God and The Law, even if he speaks the master's language, he remains by definition something short of human. An ultimate irony of Jimmy's acceptance of his duty to marry the pregnant girl, by the way, is that the child turns out to be white, fathered by another of the girl's recent acquaintances. So, as an oppressed black man, Jimmy Blacksmith is left carrying another white man's burden.
Jimmy reacts against his treatment. His reaction is violent. He takes an axe to several victims, most of them women. He then flees and is joined in crime by his brother, Mort. Together they evade capture, despite being pursued by thousands until an inevitable fate materialises.
Jimmy Blacksmith presents several problems for the modern reader, however. Powerful it may be, but then Thomas Keneally's attempt to render an accent in writing does not work. As a consequence, the dialogue sometimes seems confused and opaque. The author stated some years later that if he were to write the book now he would describe events from the perspective of a white observer. This would, however, render Jimmy an object, and the reader is often surprised by occupying the role of subject in this book.
Thomas Keneally does create some wonderful scenes. Jimmy's shedding of blood is brutal, but is it any less brutal than the slaughter of thousands by the British? And in the end, did those with power treat their working class subjects any better than they treated Jimmy? Was the young white bride Jimmy took any better off than him by virtue of her species superiority?
Alongside Peter Carey's Kelly Gang and, from a factual perspective, Alan Moorehead's Fatal Impact, Jimmy Blacksmith provides a different and complementary insight. To experience the book's power, the modern reader has to know something of Australia's history and, crucially, something of the 1970s attitudes that prevailed at the time of writing. Any shortcomings then pale into insignificance when compared with the novel's achievement.