Prior to the publication of Confederates, Keneally had achieved substantial critical and commercial success in his native Australia and in Great Britain, but he was not well-known in the United States. The novel’s subject matter and intrinsic excellence earned for Confederates a hearing among American reviewers and readers, and subsequent novels, such as Schindler’s List (first published in Australia as Schindler’s Ark, 1982) and A Family Madness (1985), have also been very well received. The cult popularity of the 1978 film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (based on Keneally’s 1972 novel), in which the author has a feature role, has undoubtedly contributed to the wider public recognition of his work.
In the context of Keneally’s previous books, Confederates continues an interest in historical fiction that began with the evocation of a South Pacific penal colony of the 1790’s in his third novel, Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), and continued in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, based on a turn-of-the-century Australian murder, and Gossip from the Forest (1975), which depicts the negotiations that ended World War I. Confederates’ thematic preoccupation with the nature of human loyalties is foreshadowed in The Fear (1965), which examines the faiths of Catholics and Communists, and in Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968), which describes an urbane priest’s conflicts with his less gifted colleagues. Confederates succeeds in uniting these historical interests and thematic concerns into an extraordinarily fine novel and represents the most significant development in Keneally’s literary career.