As you can possibly tell from the cover art by Jack Newnham and the ancient ISBN of my tatty paperback, I bought and read this book years and years ago, only a couple of years after its first publication in 1972. It caused a stir then because of its subject matter , and it was nominated for the Booker Prize. It’s been a staple of Year 12 reading lists ever since, though perhaps these days less so, because there’s a view now that indigenous people should be the ones writing about themselves, not Australian authors of European descent. (Keneally himself has recognised that).
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith tells the story of an Aboriginal man of part European descent who rejects his tribal ways and tries instead to adapt to mainstream Australian life. He can read and write at a time when many white men can’t, and after a stint as a black tracker which tests his loyalties beyond endurance, he takes up labouring work and becomes a reliable and honest worker with ambitions to own property and have a respectable white wife.
His white employers, however, take every opportunity to cheat him, hopeful of goading him into leaving without the money they owe him. When he is paid, his black family consider themselves entitled to share in the proceeds and spend his hard-earned savings on grog. He is encouraged to marry a white girl (so that his children will be only ‘one quarter Aboriginal’) but while white men routinely make sport of having black women, the only girl who will consider him is from the Home for Wayward Girls and she cheats him into marrying her.
The moment comes when Jimmie realises that he is never going to be accepted in white society and that he doesn’t fit into Aboriginal society either. He explodes into violent inchoate rage and embarks on a murderous rampage, slaughtering the women and children of the men who had cheated him. Caught up in this fatal onslaught are his half-brother Mort, and a tribal elder, Jackie Smolders, and they participate in Jimmie’s vengeance against those who have wronged him without really knowing why.
Jackie Smolders is captured almost immediately and Mort is shot as an outlaw; both are bewildered by what they have done and are redeemed by their remorse. But Jimmie, on the run across outback NSW and Queensland – acquiring an almost legendary status because of his ability to evade capture – remains defiant almost to the end, only captured when he takes refuge in a convent in a delirium from his wounds. As the new century dawns and the Australian Federation is born, white man’s justice takes its course and Jimmie’s tortured life comes to a close.
Over at Kinna Reads, there’s a discussion about how challenging books become more accessible as a reader matures. However reading this book for the second time after an interval of forty years makes me think that it is time itself that has changed The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith for me.
Reading this book in 1974 or thereabouts was a different experience. Gough Whitlam was in power, and his progressive government was committed to Land Rights and Aboriginal autonomy in decision-making. It had introduced a universal health care system, legal aid, reforms in public education funding and free tertiary education, all of which offered new opportunities for indigenous people. There was an openness to recognising past wrongs and talk of a treaty. Although there was awareness of the extreme disadvantage Aborigines experienced, there was a sense of optimism in the air. We believed that these reforms would improve their lives and Keneally’s book tapped into a willingness to confront the truth about Australia’s Black history.
Political leadership makes a difference. Under Whitlam and his immediate successors there was bipartisan support for Aboriginal issues. There was no such thing as ‘Black-Armband History’, or the highly contentious ‘Intervention’ for which the Racial Discrimination Act had to be suspended. But as time went by and the awful television images showed that things seemed to be getting no better for Aboriginal people, public sympathy ebbed and by the 1990s the Howard government had no compunction about refusing an Apology to the Stolen Generations, and could deny the massacres that blot the pages of Australia’s pioneer history. Blame is back on the agenda. People reading this book today are only too well aware of dysfunctional Aboriginal family life and the normalisation of domestic violence, and perhaps react differently to Keneally’s palette of casual and institutionalised racism:
Farrell knew that at the tail-end of sprees in town whites often took off for Verona to lie with the gins. There was many a town elder who had reason to cringe at the sight of some trachoma-eyed half-caste child who had his jaw or nose or forehead. It was always the white man’s good luck that the lubra nothing so obscene as blackmail. If you were an alderman who had once gone with a gin, the worst you had to fear was that the woman might call out a greeting to you in the main street, even within sight of the superior architecture of the municipal offices or School of Arts. (p36)
Perhaps today readers might even feel that the white man’s venality is too unrelenting, but back in the 70s there was a sense of revelation about this tragic tale, an opening of festering old wounds so that healing might begin.
I haven’t read many books by Thomas Keneally…only Schindler’s Ark, The Tyrant’s Novel and the audio book The Widow and her Hero (see my review). #Update 5/2/17 I have now read and reviewed many more, see here for the reviews.) However it seems to me that The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith has literary qualities absent from his more recent novels, and at times the writing reminded me of Patrick White in its crisp imagery:
In Balmain, a riverside suburb of the city of Sydney, the public hangman for the state of New South Wales kept a scrupulous butchery. There was clean sawdust on the floor each day, a capacious coolroom and two polite sons. He himself was an exemplary man, full of placid love. Three morning a week he or one of his sons bought carcasses at the Homebush slaughteryards. He was at his most talkative on meat: he would pick up lumps of sirloin and praise their texture before housewives. (p 92)
Unlike White however, Keneally has an earthy command of dialogue, and this short book (only 178 pages long) has a compelling narrative thrust. Harrowing as it is, it’s almost impossible to put down.
Author: Thomas Keneally
Title: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Publisher: Penguin, 1974, first published 1972
ISBN: 014 0036202
Source: Personal Library