Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777
Although the novel is ostensibly about the “chant” of Jimmie Blacksmith, that “chant” is both ironic and symbolic. Since Jimmie consciously rejects his tribal roots and never “chants,” as his half brother Mort does, he cannot articulate his suppressed rage and frustration in a ritualized manner. Instead, his “chant” becomes his life, the actions which physically express his inner life, but that violent expression of physical language is only the result of unarticulated motives that have to be supplied by Keneally. By adopting a third-person point of view, limited, for the most part, to Jimmie Blacksmith, Keneally supplies the motivation and suggests that Jimmie’s heinous crimes are caused by a repressive white society which drives him to the very behavior that society half expects, thereby confirming its preconceived notions about “lower ways of life.” The true story (as well as the folktales that have accrued to it) of Jimmie Governor lies behind the novel, and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith represents Keneally’s attempt not only to account for the actual historical crimes but also to place the onus on the white society.
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Rather than focus on the murders and Jimmie’s subsequent flight, Keneally divides his novel equally between causes and effects: The first murder occurs halfway through the book. In effect, the first eight chapters, which form the prelude to the murders that occur in 1900, account for Jimmie’s alienation from the aboriginal culture, his assimilation of white cultural values, and his unsuccessful attempts to gain “home, hearth, wife, and land” and to learn the “rites, motives, and notions” of the white society. Ironically, it is the well-intentioned efforts of the Reverend Mr. Neville, who considers Jimmie to be his “protege,” that make Jimmie turn against the aboriginal society, which he comes to consider inferior because of its “shiftlessness,” alcoholism, and sexual immorality. Neville advises Jimmie to get a job (Keneally heightens the cultural conflict by adding that there is no word for “job” in Mungindi, Jimmie’s language) and to marry a white woman, thereby gaining access to white society. Jimmie finds, however, that the only jobs available to him are fencing for parsimonious Mr. Healy (who cheats him out of twelve shillings), tracking for Constable Farrell (who sodomizes black prisoners and gives Jimmie less than three pounds of a three-hundred-pound reward), and working as a sweeper on a sheep-shearing operation. He is equally unfortunate in his matrimonial ambitions, for the white woman he marries is a “very stupid” servant who is carrying not his child but the white cook’s. Even the “proper” Methodist marriage involves white exploitation, for the minister’s wife insists that he first cut and stack “a terrible heap of redwood” or be arrested. To compound his problems, Jackie Smolders (known by his native name, Tabidgi), Peter, and Mort Blacksmith, three kinsmen, arrive at the Newby farm and drain Jimmie’s meager financial resources. Their exploitation of Jimmie also provides Mr. Newby with an excuse to cheat Jimmie, who protests and is ordered off the farm.
Newby’s action precipitates Jimmie’s brutal murder, with Tabidgi’s help, of the Newby women and Miss Graf. Although Jimmie flees with his entire entourage, he soon leaves Gilda and her child behind, and when Tabidgi proves to be an impediment, Jimmie leaves him with Peter. Despite Jimmie’s naive attempts to protect his uncle, Tabidgi is eventually hanged. While she is cleared of any charges, Gilda is not “freed” because she is relegated to the care of two Sisters of Mercy. The remainder of the novel concerns the adventures of Jimmie and his half brother Mort, who are hunted by three thousand men, including Dowie Stead and his friends.
Although Jimmie has sworn vengeance on all the other whites who exploited him, he and Mort succeed only in killing the Healys before they become the passive hunted. After they kill the Healys, their only victim is Toban, one of Stead’s friends, and his death is an “accident,” not a premeditated murder. In fact, Jimmie and Mort spare the lives of several whites who, despite their apparent vulnerability, manage to gain the psychological upper hand over the two outlaws, who are depicted by Keneally as bringing “deliberate crises on themselves.” This self-destructive impulse is used against them by McCreadie, the schoolteacher/hostage who becomes their “master” and eventually “emasculates and sunders” the two brothers. Once the brothers are separated, a farmer shoots Mort; after being wounded by a gunshot, Jimmie ironically takes refuge in a convent, where he is captured. When it is politically expedient, Jimmie and Tabidgi are hanged by Wallace Hyberry, whose political ambitions are thereby finally realized.