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The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally is based on the life of an Australian bushranger called Jimmy Governor. Fictionalised as Jimmy Blacksmith, the character takes several steps down the social ladder in terms of his name, but remains at the bottom of the pile in reality by virtue of being not only black, but also an Aborigine. As Jimmy Blacksmith, however, the character is not without skills. He speaks English and can build a uniform fence as strong and even as anyone. He can work as hard and deliver as much as any hired hand, except, of course, by definition.
Thomas Keneally's novel is highly successful in its presentation of white people's assumptions of superiority. Knowing that they occupy a level much higher up the Victorian pyramid of life that has God and The Queen at the top, they can be imperially confident that anything they might think or do must necessarily outshine what the likes of Jimmy Blacksmith can achieve. When reality suggests a contradiction, then their position of privilege allows them to change the rules in order to belittle achievement and deny results.
To label such attitudes as merely racist is to miss much of the point. These whites, always eager to proffer judgment at the turn of twentieth century Australia, did not regard their attitudes as based on race. The relevant word was surely not race, but species, since the indigenous population was seen as something less than human. So even when Jimmy Blacksmith displays complete competence, strength, endurance or cooperation, even if he becomes a Methodist Christian, marries a white woman according to God and The Law, even if he speaks the master's language, he remains by definition something short of human. An ultimate irony of Jimmy's acceptance of his duty to marry the pregnant girl, by the way, is that the child turns out to be white, fathered by another of the girl's recent acquaintances. So, as an oppressed black man, Jimmy Blacksmith is left carrying another white man's burden.
Jimmy reacts against his treatment. His reaction is violent. He takes an axe to several victims, most of them women. He then flees and is joined in crime by his brother, Mort. Together they evade capture, despite being pursued by thousands until an inevitable fate materialises.
Jimmy Blacksmith presents several problems for the modern reader, however. Powerful it may be, but then Thomas Keneally's attempt to render an accent in writing does not work. As a consequence, the dialogue sometimes seems confused and opaque. The author stated some years later that if he were to write the book now he would describe events from the perspective of a white observer. This would, however, render Jimmy an object, and the reader is often surprised by occupying the role of subject in this book.
Thomas Keneally does create some wonderful scenes. Jimmy's shedding of blood is brutal, but is it any less brutal than the slaughter of thousands by the British? And in the end, did those with power treat their working class subjects any better than they treated Jimmy? Was the young white bride Jimmy took any better off than him by virtue of her species superiority?
Alongside Peter Carey's Kelly Gang and, from a factual perspective, Alan Moorehead's Fatal Impact, Jimmy Blacksmith provides a different and complementary insight. To experience the book's power, the modern reader has to know something of Australia's history and, crucially, something of the 1970s attitudes that prevailed at the time of writing. Any shortcomings then pale into insignificance when compared with the novel's achievement.