Since he wrote his first novel, The Place at Whitton, in 1964, Keneally has been a prolific writer with several novels, a few plays, and even some children’s fiction to his credit. According to him, however, his work really began to mature with the publication of A Dutiful Laughter (1971), a novel with an Australian setting; that novel marked his first extensive use of fable and legend. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith appeared the following year, and it, too, relies on legend and myth. In fact, in many respects the novel is of a piece with most of Keneally’s later work, which has been characterized by impressionistic and symbolic, rather than realistic, setting; by a blending of history and fiction (Blood Red, Sister Rose, 1974, a novel about Joan of Arc, for example); and by a concern about guilt-ridden people and the consciences of people outside the Establishment.
Much of the strength and appeal of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith lies in the novel’s universality, in its account of one culture’s decimation of another culture (with the obvious parallels to the American experience with Native Americans and blacks), and to its delineation of an individual’s motivation for outrageous acts of violence. In this respect, the novel resembles such American classics as William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), both of which indict society as well as the criminals.