Thomas Keneally 1935–
(Full name Thomas Michael Keneally) Australian novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer, and author of children's books.
The following entry provides an overview of Keneally's career through 1996. For additional information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 8, 10, 14, 19, 27, and 43.
Since the publication of The Place at Whitton in 1965, Keneally has published over thirty novels, plays, and non-fiction books. His work is noted for being as diverse as it is prolific. The settings of his fiction range from Australia and Europe to America and cover such topics as the settlement of Australia, the life of Joan of Arc, the First and Second World Wars, and issues of contemporary life. Keneally's writings often focus on the role of faith and religion in society, and human interactions in time of war.
Keneally was born October 7, 1935, in Sydney, Australia. His parents, Edmund Thomas and Elsie Margaret (Coyle) Keneally, were of Irish Catholic descent; Keneally entered the seminary, but he left two weeks short of taking orders. Two of his early novels—The Place at Whitton and Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1969)—are set in seminaries and reflect Keneally's conflict with church dogma. In 1965 he married Judith Martin, and they had two children, Margaret Ann and Jane Rebecca. Keneally taught high school, then college in Australia, then at the University of California at Irvine and New York University. He served on the board of several literary and cultural organizations, and became involved in the movement for Australian independence. He was an advisor to the Australian Constitutional Committee in 1985–88, and Chairman (1991–93), then Director (1994—) of the Australian Republic Movement, a political organization with the goal of Australian independence from Great Britain.
Keneally's first novel, The Place at Whitton, is a Gothic horror set in a seminary. The play Halloran's Little Boat (1966) was expanded into the novel Bring Larks and Heroes (1967). Both works deal with moral and ethical conflicts in the early convict settlements of Australia. Ethical conflict is also the subject of Three Cheers for the Paraclete, the story of a young, idealistic priest teaching in a seminary. Keneally ex-plores race relations and the effects of power and poverty in Australia in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), the story of a young aborigine turned outlaw. The backdrop of war is used in several Keneally novels as a setting for the exploration of stress, conflict and hard ethical choices. In Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974), Keneally uses the story of Joan of Arc to examine conflict and ethics. Gossip from the Forest (1975) looks at the difficult compromises involved in negotiating the armistice at the end of World War I. Matthias Erzberger, head of the German delegation, recognizes the compelling need to end the conflict. Pressured by both sides, he accepts the ruinous terms demanded by the French. These conditions, Keneally suggests, lead to the disastrous economic conditions which follow in Germany, and ultimately sow the seeds of World War II. Confederates (1979) uses the United States Civil War as a setting for a more personal conflict between neighbors. In the midst of the war's climactic battle—Antietam—anotherconflict is underway. Ephie Bumpass' husband Usaph and Ephie's lover Decatur Cate are thrown together to fight in the Shenandoah Volunteers. Cate's emasculating injury in the battle is a symbolic punishment for his sin. In Schindler's List (1982), Keneally examines war, man's inhumanity, and the complex moral and ethical issues present in difficult and perilous times. The novel focuses on the story of Oskar Schindler, a less-than-perfect hero who saves the lives of over a thousand Jews through clever manipulation of the Nazi war machine. In Woman of the Inner Sea (1992), Keneally's protagonist, Kate, is an urban housewife who loses, in rapid succession, her husband to another woman and her children to a tragic accident. Lost in her grief, Kate travels to Myambagh, a small town in the Outback. Every year the area is ravaged by terrible floods, and the time in between is spent repairing damage and preparing for the next flood. Kate is comforted by this repetitive cycle, wherein disaster is made routine, and she finds a renewed ability to face life. Keneally's non-fiction support of Australian independence, delineated in Memoirs from a Young Republic (1993), generated a great deal of political as well as literary criticism. Set in turn-of-the-century Australia, A River Town (1995) is the story of a young Irish immigrant, Tim Shea, who is trying to leave behind the restrictive social structure of his native land, but finds many of the same difficulties in his new country. Shea suffers financially for his refusal to support the Boer War and for not signing a blanket oath of support to the goals of Great Britain. Most critics see this novel as an extended metaphor on the subject of Australia's independence.
One measure of the controversy generated by much of Keneally's work is the amount that has been written by critics about other critics of his writing. This is to be expected when a writer takes a controversial political stand, such as Keneally did with Memoirs of a Young Republic, and by acting as Chairman of the Australian Republican Movement. But diverse critical reaction to Keneally's work preceded this book. He has been both criticized and praised for his portrayal of female characters (Blood Red, Sister Rose, A Dutiful Daughter, 1971); the graphic nature of his portrayals of violence in his war novels (Schindler's List, Confederates); and his novelization of historical fact (Schindler's List, Gossip from the Forest). Keneally, defending his approach to the historical novel, says that the best ones are "really about the present and uses the past as a sort of working model … in which the human issues are the same as those we have now, and have always had to face." Keneally's characters are complex, full of internal conflict and torn by mixed emotions that make it difficult for readers to simply summarize his position. As Janet Turner Hospital says, "His protagonists, men and women who have a yen for ordinary unremarkable lives but who are compelled by circumstances and by some hard inconvenient kernel of integrity to be exceptional, are torn by self-doubt, they are hyper-conscious of mixed motives, they are distrustful of certainties." Some critics see these conflicted, marginal heroes, such as Phelim Halloran (Bring Larks and Heroes) and Oskar Schindler as representative of a pessimistic view of history, in which a savage system only allows for small moral victories of exceptional people. Many critics, however, praise Keneally's ability, through these deep, complicated, conflicted characters, to make a strong moral statement. They characterize Keneally's message as hopeful, that average, imperfect individuals can take action against unjust systems and have tangible, positive effect. Keneally is praised for taking a moral position without resorting to standing on a soapbox. This is, as Hospital says, "one of the consistent strengths of the entire (and considerable) body of Keneally's work. Though he has a passionate moral vision, he is not didactic."