Keneally, Thomas 1935–
An Australian novelist, Keneally is an ex-seminarian of Irish-Catholic descent. Best known for his Blood Red, Sister Rose, a retelling of the Joan of Arc legend, Keneally has been praised both for his realistic characterizations and his use of history. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 10, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
[In "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith"] Thomas Keneally has chosen an actual incident—in 1900, when the disparate [Australian] states were rapidly but uneasily moving toward federation—around which to weave a powerful and disturbing fiction: the growth of a half-caste young man, Jimmie Blacksmith, from Methodist "mission black" to murderer and outlaw. Here are the trappings of "In Cold Blood"—rural isolation, slaughter, manhunt—but the impulse, the motivations and, most important, Keneally's highly charged and distinctive style are quite different.
Jimmie has been sharpened yet confused, made ambitious yet is uprooted, by the thin nurture of Christianity and other Western notions. Behind him lie the impoverished and debased lives of such people as his uncle Tabidgi and his half-brother Mort; yet Keneally sets in high relief the inheritance they represent, in their instinctive poetry and in the immensities of their own religion. Left to themselves, they would have worked out their destinies….
At best patronized, at worst cheated and wronged in every conceivable mean-minded way, [Jimmie] is ready to wreak havoc…. Gradually the question occurs to him—does he not have "a license to run mad" in view of the cruelties he has suffered from white men? Goaded to blind fury, the answer is yes….
Jimmie and his half-brother go off on a "walkabout" that leaves in its wake a trail of further murders. Outlawed, haunted both by his tribal inheritance and some relics of the "poor-bugger-white-fella-son-of-God-got nailed" still attached to him, Jimmie and Mort track and scavenge across the huge territories of New South Wales. Keneally's account of this hopeless odyssey is exciting and chilling: the battle—with human malevolence, with spiritual fear, with the remorseless natural world—is real, not the daydream stuff of, say, James Dickey's "Deliverance," in which the problems and struggles are neat and bland.
Keneally has many incidental portraits and encounters which add to the rich curiousness of his story. (p. 3)
Thomas Keneally has blended history, psychological insight and an epic adventure with great skill. "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" echoes in the head long after it has been put down. (p. 24)
Anthony Thwaite, "'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 27, 1972, pp. 3, 24.
If we think of "the mythology of Australian history" in terms of imaginative fiction, one name springs instantly to mind: Patrick White. With Voss and The Tree of Man he mapped out a territory which seemed to be peculiarly his own. Anyone else working the same ground could scarcely help but appear as an imitator. So it's particularly interesting to see a talented writer like Thomas Keneally staking his claim in the White territory.
Mr. Keneally's [The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith] … is set in rural New South Wales at the turn of the century and seems to shadow White at several points, though it may simply be that, handling the same sort of material (farming life, and the social flux of a century still in process of completion), there is an overlapping of documentary detail, plus a focusing on the mythological features of the period. But they have something else in common—a painter's eye, a humane particularity of observation….
The narrative moves along at a compelling pace, but the finer points of...
(The entire section contains 7576 words.)
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