‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ by Thomas Keneally (Review)

Today’s post looks at the second of my review copies from Harper Collins Australia taken from the Angus & Robertson Australian Classics range.  The first, Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land, looked at race relations after the arrival of the first fleet in 1788.  This one is set a century later, but as you’ll see, little has changed…

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is one of Thomas (or Tom) Keneally’s best-known works here in Australia, and it’s fairly easy to see why.  It’s the story of a half-caste Aborigine who wants to get on in the world, having lost faith, and patience, with the lifestyle of his family and tribe.  With some gentle encouragement from the Methodist minister on the settlement he is attached to, Jimmie decides that he needs to make an effort to succeed in life, an effort which involves leaving the traditional past behind and embracing a white future.

This is 1899 though, and while Australian federation is just around the corner, the birth of a new country does not mean a new era for race relations.  Racism is common, casual and accepted.  Aborigines are still… well, I was going to say second-class citizens, but that would be a lie.  They weren’t even counted on the census until the second half of the twentieth century…

Nonetheless, Jimmie knows what he wants, and the best way to get it:

“Possession was a holy state and he had embarked upon it with the Nevilles’ shovel.  The Nevilles had succeeded so well as to make Jimmie a snob.  In the mind of the true snob there are certain limited criteria to denote the value of a human existence.  Jimmie’s criteria were: home, hearth, wife, land.  Those who possessed these had beatitude unchallengeable.  Other men had accidental, random life.  Nothing better.”
pp.16/7 (Angus and Robertson Classics, 2013)

Unfortunately though, Jimmie is never likely to achieve his dreams, and even his marriage to a poor, young white girl is unlikely to help when his bosses continue to despise, cheat and laugh at him.  One day, Jimmie snaps – and the consequences are horrific and legendary…

While Keneally himself claims in a foreword that this is not one of his better books, it’s one that has captured the imagination of readers since its publication in 1972.  The key to the story is that Jimmie, unlike his brother Mort (another of the main characters), is the product of a relationship between a white man and a native woman.  He is different both in appearance and mindset to his kin, but unable to completely escape his tribal upbringing and his responsibilities to his extended family.  Caught between two worlds, he is destined to fall into a deep void.

Of course, he is pushed towards his fate by the white men who employ him (while always looking to exploit and cheat him).  Each time Jimmie works hard, his employers’ cruelty or meanness forces him to move on, an action which reinforces the stereotype of the lazy ‘blackfella’ who ups and leaves when he pleases.  Even his time as a police tracker is cut short by a savage, cruel event.

Even so, when we come to the turning point, and Jimmie finally takes his revenge, we are stunned.  The cover of the book makes no secret of the fact that he snaps and commits murder, but we are perhaps conditioned into finding excuses and expect his actions to be almost understandable.  They are nothing of the kind, and the book is all the better for it.  Once Jimmie has time to look back on the event, he expects to feel remorse:

“Jimmie himself still waited for the slump of spirits which could be expected after merciless Friday night.  It failed to come.  He was still in a viable balance between belief and non-belief in the dismembering he had done.  At the same time, the thorough nature of the punishment he had dealt out continued to soothe and flatter him.  Because he had been effective.  He had actually manufactured death and howling dark for people who had such pretensions of permanence.  He had cut down obelisks to white virtue.” (p.101)

Instead of regretting his actions, he feels a sense of vindication…

As the great event of Federation draws ever closer though, you sense that Jimmie’s time is running out along with that of the old six colonies.  His punishment will be less a noose or a bullet, than a feeling of failure and remorse for the mess he’s made of other people’s lives.  After spending time on the run with Jimmie and his friends, will we feel more sympathy for the murderer?  I suspect that will depend on the individual reader…

While The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a great read, it does start slowly, and the first half can be a little predictable in its lament of a poor Aborigine cheated by the nasty white man (the dated racist jibes at the English wore a little thin too…).  However, once we reach the pivotal point of the story, it turns into something more, a subtle, complex exploration of what it means to be caught between cultures in a society which is, literally, black and white.  There were no shades of grey (or light-brown) in the eyes of nineteenth-century Australians…

Oh, one last thing (and it’s probably something I should have mentioned earlier).  This novel is based on a true story, and while some of the names and dates have been changed, the basic plot is the same.  There really was a Jimmie (Governor, not Blacksmith) living at the end of the nineteenth century, who married a white woman and went on a killing spree, ending up the same way as his fictional namesake.  Perhaps that makes the story even more powerful than it already is…

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