1972 Booker Shortlist – The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith – Thomas Keneally

I’m going to add a bit of context here. In 1972, Thomas Keneally became the first Australian novelist to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Patrick White’s nomination for ”The Vivisector”  was for the 1970 missing Booker and that award was not made until 2010), at that time generally “Australian Literature” was not taught in schools, we’d only been a Federated Nation for 71 years. Only five years prior to the release of this book a Referendum was held to agree with the electorate to allow the count of Aboriginal people in the census. I distinctly recall studying in 1980 and being directed to NOT study the Australian texts (we had a choice of texts) as they were sub-standard and that given our short history, there was no such thing as “Australian Literature”. Add to that that in my teens I recall watching the film version of this novel so I knew the story prior to reading this story.
Based on the story of Jimmie Governor, this is a tale of displacement in one’s own land, of persecution, of unclear identity, shame and more. Written from an aboriginal point of view (which in itself is controversial – an Anglo-Saxon writing as an aboriginal?) it covers a lot of territory in its small frame (my edition is 178 pages).
Set around the time of the Federation of Australia (1901), Jimmie Blacksmith is of mixed race, with an aboriginal mother and an unknown white father, he is “taught” and influenced by the local missionary Rev. Neville and our tale begins with his maternal uncle setting out, with Jimmie’s initiation tooth in his pocket, to walk 100 miles to find Jimmie, who has married a white girl. We then flash back to the events which led to Jimmie’s marriage, the arrival of his maternal uncle, and further on to Jimmie’s involvement in unlawful events (I don’t want to add spoilers) and then onto the subsequent events.
Healy, Lewis, now Newby had each staked his soul on Jimmie’s failure. If they were so supreme on their land that they didn’t need to be political, why should they yearn so for Jimmie’s mistakes; and, when mistakes were not made, dream them up?
At times this could be a hard novel to decipher, with Aboriginal references and language;
To his mind people should continue to wed according to the tribal patter. Which was: that Tullam should marry Mungara, Mungara should wed Garri, Garri should wed Wibbera, Wibbera take Tullam’s women. But here was Jimmie, a Tullam, married in church to a white girl.
However this is convincing and, to me, a lot more realistic than Peter Carey’s gimmick of language and his attempt at ventriloquism in “True History of the Kelly Gang” (always a book I’ve disliked).
In 2012 “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” has stood the test of time and should be celebrated as a master stroke in Australian Literature and voice, and although now people are asking Keneally if he would have been better placed to have written this from the settler’s point of view, I found the tackling of such a controversial subject honest and ringing true. Let’s not forget that it took until February 2008 before a Prime Minister of this country would formally apologise to the indigenous people of this land.
This novel wouldn’t have been my choice for the winner of the 1972 award but it is an important one and for people new to Booker Prize lists and the Australian novel one I would recommend.
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