The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith Summary
by Thomas Keneally

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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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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.

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...

(The entire section is 809 words.)