At a simple level, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is based on a conventional narrative structure of provocation, revenge, pursuit and capture. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith layers all of the elements of this structure onto an equally familiar structure of the hero’s journey, or quest. Both of these narrative traditions are complicated and subverted by the empathetic construction of the novel’s anti-hero, Jimmie Blacksmith. These familiar aspects of genre and character are worth foregrounding prior to reading the novel to give students a familiar point of reference regarding its construction.
- Define and consider the concept of the anti-hero. A good starting point can be reading the definition and examples provided on the Literary Devices website. Students list attributes expected of a heroic character in terms of values, virtues, status in society and relationship to antagonists. These attributes should be contrasted to the antagonists in the narrative. An important representation of a historical figure worth some attention would be Ned Kelly. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith makes direct reference to the Kelly “myth” and links Blacksmith’s experiences and circumstances to the bushranger. Consider Kelly’s crimes, his motives and public responses to those crimes in terms of a modern context and a contemporaneous one. After some discussion or brief research on Ned Kelly, students can read Kelly’s own account in hisJerilderie Letter. The key question to explore with the Kelly example is why a bushranger (thief and murderer of police) is often considered a person worthy of sympathy, respect and admiration.
- Anti-heroes in fiction worth discussing are the main characters of the TV seriesDexter and Breaking Bad.
- Discuss characteristics of the revenge genre: list texts that follow a provocation-revenge-pursuit-capture structure. The pursuit and capture parts of this structure often mean that the pursuers are figures of authority in the narrative’s society, which often places the protagonist in the anti-hero category (but not always). Attention should be drawn to the social setting and how the dominant power is represented to determine whether the protagonist can be considered an anti-hero
- Possible texts to refer to in this discussion: Thelma and Louise, Unforgiven, True History of the Kelly Gang (or some other representation of Ned Kelly’s experiences), The Matrix, Elysium, and The Hunger Games (the series).
- Revise the key elements of Joseph Campbell’s model of the Heroes Journey, making note of the important points of the structure.
The novel depicts the region and society of New South Wales in the years leading to Australia’s Federation in 1901, and ending with Jimmie Blacksmith’s execution in May 1901. Students can be provided some brief political and social context of this time. Important points to note:
- Prior to Federation, Australia’s landmass was divided into six separate English colonies. Colonists had different attitudes towards Federation with some seeing it as a way to establish a strong nation independent from Britain. Others feared being dominated by stronger, more populous colonies (which would become states). Some of these attitudes are expressed by characters in the novel.
- Each of the colonies (as outposts of the British Empire) were supporting the war against the Boers in South Africa, known as The Boer War. The Boers were descendants of the Dutch colonisers who established the important settlement on the tip of Southern Africa in 1652 and entered into violent conflict with the native tribes on the land. By the time the British Empire took control of the region in 1806, the Dutch-Afrikaner peoples had established strong, patriotic ties to the land and many moved East and North away from the British focus of power on the Cape. These people considered the British an occupying power and resisted British attempts to absorb Boer territory into the Empire.
- The apparent parallels between the Boer/South African Natives and the Aboriginal peoples/and colonists in the face of imperial rule are explored through the attitudes expressed by characters in the novel, which speak to several of the novel’s themes.
- The lands of New South Wales (and other colonies) were divided up by the colonial governments and provided to settlers on the grounds they were “improved” for agricultural or pastoral purposes. There were no rights for Aboriginal people already on the land. What followed was persistent conflict until Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land and surviving tribes driven to reserves or missions. According to the Creative Spirits Timeline, by 1888, the Aboriginal population in all colonies was reduced to 80,000, from an estimated 220,000. The loss of land, a decimated population, missionary efforts to convert Aboriginal people to Christianity, and the effects of alcohol worked together to weaken Aboriginal cultural integrity. Some of the events and political/social forces that lead to the situation we find in the Aboriginal mission at the start of Jimmie Blacksmith can be seen in the Creative Spirits Timelines 1770-1899 and 1900-1969 (the first event on the second timeline refers to the hanging of Jimmy Governor upon who the novel is based).
- Some of the subsequent activities will identify some of the features of Aboriginal culture, as revealed in the novel and the complications that arise in a writer trying to represent a culture quite alien to himself. At this point in the unit, little attention is given to Aboriginal culture and history in order to avoid influencing initial impressions and responses. Even so, and given the focus on indigenous studies in the modern Australian curriculum, it is quite reasonable to think the average senior school English student knows more of Aboriginal culture and history than a typical reader of Keneally’s novel in 1972.
Personal responses to the novel
To elicit initial responses to events and characters as they evolve, the novel can be divided for convenience into the provocation-revenge-pursuit-capture structure. Students should answer the questions related to each of the sections.
(ACELR001) (ACELR004) (ACELR011)
- Provocation: Chapters 1-8
How do you feel about Jimmie’s ambitions?
What reasons can you think of for why Jimmie is treated unfairly?
Write a letter from Mrs Neville to a relative in England in which she describes Brentwood mission.
- Revenge: Chapter 8
Discuss with classmates your responses (emotional and intellectual) to the murders committed.
After reading chapter 8, read one of the first newspaper accounts of the murder as reported on July 23, 1900. What questions does the article leave unanswered?
- Pursuit: Chapters 9-15
In many ways, Dowie Stead would be seen as a heroic character by observers at the time of the killings – how does this view contrast with your view of him? Elaborate.
Rank the level of sympathy you have with the central characters involved in the pursuit: Jimmie, Mort, Tabidgi, Gilda, Dowie Stead, Mr McCreadie, Toban. Compare and contrast your list with your classmates.
Would you categorise Jimmie’s actions on the run as a war? Elaborate.
- Capture: Chapter 15
From the range of letters and articles presented in the final pages, locate three opinions with which you strongly agree and strongly disagree. Explain one of each.
Jimmie “opens his heart to Christ” when in jail. Is this a good thing?
Outline of text’s key elements
The events of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith happen in the Western and Northern regions of Sydney, New South Wales. Jimmie’s movements take him through a range of natural landscapes, towns and farming properties. His travels first happen in relation to his search for work and later as he eludes police and vigilante groups in rugged and sparsely populated regions. Like Ned Kelly thirty years earlier, Jimmie was able to use the ruggedness of the mountainous regions to his advantage in outwitting his pursuers with his superior skills in living in the bush. At one point in the novel, the landscape is referred to as Jimmie’s ally in his war against his persecutors and pursuers (p. 93).
The range of social contexts in which Jimmie operates over the course of his life reflects the novel’s focus on the themes of social identity and cultural conflict. As the son of an Aboriginal mother and white father, Jimmie has a degree of access to both worldviews. The internal conflicts that arise in Jimmie from the tension between cultures are catalysed by his various social encounters. These social settings include Aboriginal settlements, Christian missions, regional towns, and farms. All of these occur within a broader social setting in which Aboriginal people are firmly marginalised by a white, Christian-dominated society. While the first half of the Eighteenth Century would have seen significant frontier violence between Aboriginal communities and white settlers, by the end of that century the Aboriginal tribes in New South Wales had been largely conquered and restricted to small reserves or missions. Deprived of access to their land, ravaged by disease and denied equal access to a colonial economy that was foreign to them, alcoholism became yet another destructive force for these damaged people. A common belief among even well-meaning white people was that remaining Aborigines were members of a dying race.
The social order on which Aboriginal society’s are based are quite complex and can be difficult for students to comprehend without guidance. The Aboriginal Culture website provides a good explanation of marriage laws and of social groupings including tribes/language groups, clans, and moieties. The first few pages of the novel reveals Jimmie’s place in this social structure and is summarised here:
- Language group (sometimes referred to as a tribe) → Mungindi
- Clan → Tullam
- Totem → Emu-wren
Other clans of the Mungindi are mentioned in the novel’s third paragraph in relation to marriage laws, and readers are informed that:
- Tullam (men) marry Mungara (women)
- Mungara (m) marry Garri (w)
- Garri (m) marry Wibbera (w)
- Wibbera (m) marry Tullam (w)
The political backdrop to Jimmie’s experiences with white and black cultures is that Australia is on the verge of nationhood whereby six separate colonies would be united under the one federation, to be called Australia. So, while Jimmie is attempting to navigate between cultural loyalties and understand his own social identity, white colonials are wrestling with similar questions in terms of their relationship with the British Empire. These national identity tensions are brought into sharper focus by the Boer War in South Africa in which many Australian men were dying for the British Empire’s imperial interests.
Many readers will approach the novel with the knowledge that it centres around the murders of several women at the hands of Jimmie Blacksmith. Indeed, the A&R Classics edition (2013) says as much on its blurb. This event happens almost half-way through the novel and follows a near chronological structure. The first half of the novel presents a range of Jimmie’s experiences that lead up to the murders, including an initiation rite-of-passage in the Tullam Clan. Jimmie catches the attention of mission settlement’s superintendent, the Reverend H. J. Neville, who sees in Jimmie the potential to succeed in a white-dominated society. When the Reverend is moved to a new parsonage in Muswellbrook, the sixteen-year-old Jimmie accompanies him and Mrs Neville. Away from his kin, Jimmie readily adopts the white values espoused by the Reverend and begins to harbour ambitions to be seen as an equal to white men society; for Jimmie, this means owning property and having a white wife. When Jimmie leaves the comfort of the Neville home, he takes on several jobs for white masters. These are normally farm labouring jobs, but one time he also works as a police tracker and is instrumental in capturing the Aboriginal killer of a white man. Readers are told that Jimmie is a reliable and effective employee, but is always mistreated or exploited by prejudiced employers.
At a shearing job, Jimmie meets Gilda, a poorly educated, white servant girl. Gilda agrees to marry Jimmie when she becomes pregnant and Jimmy sets out to establish a home for his new family. A new employer, Mr Newby, allows Jimmie to build a modest hut on part of his land. Tensions rise when Jimmie’s brother and uncle arrive and the baby is born to reveal it is clearly not Jimmie’s son. Jimmie interprets a decision by the Newby household regarding grocery deliveries as just another in a long line of vindictive, racist actions and responds in a brutally violent way, and involving his uncle in his actions.
The novel from this point concerns Jimmie, his brother Mort, and his uncle’s attempts to avoid capture. Jimmie sees himself at war with white colonisers and seeks revenge upon people who had wronged him in the past. Interspersed with the “on the run” narrative, the novel cuts away from Jimmie’s experience for the first time by relating the experience of one of his pursuers, Frank Dowie, who was the fiancé of one of Jimmie’s first victims. Another sub-plot centres on the colony’s official executioner, and local butcher, Mr Hyberry. As well as foreshadowing Jimmie’s ultimate demise, the Hyberry thread allows for some insight into the political imperatives in the lead up to Federation.
Jimmie Blacksmith: an Aboriginal man of mixed descent
Gilda: Jimmie’s white bride
Mort Blacksmith: Jimmie’s half-brother who is also evading police capture
Uncle Tabidgi (Jackie Smolders): Jimmie’s maternal uncle
Mr and Mrs Newby: the heads of the farm where Jimmie begins his killing spree
Petra Graf: a school teacher living in the Newby household
Dowie Stead: Fiancé of Petra Graf and leader of a vigilante party in pursuit of the Blacksmiths
Reverend H. J. Neville: Superintendent of the Brentwood mission settlement
Mr McCreadie: A school teacher taken hostage by the Blacksmiths
Jimmie Blacksmith is a character constantly on the move in this novel which fits in with the pursuit genre and the (anti)hero’s journey structure. Consequently, the novel consists of many “episodes” in which minor characters contribute to the plot and themes in various ways.
Giving voice to, and understanding, the “other”;
Clash of Christian and Aboriginal belief systems;
Australia’s uneasy path to an independent democracy.
Conduct a close reading of Chapter One and identify moments that begin the process of exploring the themes specified above. Annotate text with labels corresponding to the themes and record which characters and groups will be associated with each one. Write a prediction of Jimmie Blacksmith’s role in each of these.
(ACELR009) (ACELR007) (ACELR005) (ACELR011) (ACELR012)
The writer’s craft
Except for the first nine paragraphs of the novel, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith follows a basic chronological structure beginning with a thirteen-year-old boy completing a rite of passage, or initiation, that marks his passage as a man in the eyes of his tribe; as his sister declares upon his return: “Born from the Lizard comes my shining brother Tullam man” (p. 5). This reborn Jimmie returns to the Methodist mission ten days after Easter, a point of timing that provides a neat symmetry with the novel’s conclusion when Jimmie is hanged shortly after Easter celebrations. Bookending the novel with Christian references, particularly focusing on the crucifixion (“poor-bugger-white-fella-son-of-God-got-nailed” (p. 7) and “The next day Jimmie saw an eye he was not used to, peering full . . . at the Judas window” (p. 188) places Jimmie at the centre of an exploration of the belief systems associated with Christian faith and values, and those of “tribal cosmogony” (p. 8). This collision of cultural beliefs occur even though, “The truth of Mr Neville (the missionary) and the truth of Emu-Wren ran parallel” (p. 7).
The complicating factor to the neat (re)birth to death chronology are the opening nine paragraphs. With this opening, the narrator chooses to begin Jimmie Blacksmith’s story with his uncle Tabidgi (Jackie Smolders) setting out with Jimmie’s initiation tooth after hearing of his nephew’s marriage to a white woman. It is made clear that this act was seen as a defiance of cultural/spiritual beliefs and deeply troubled both Tabidgi and Jimmie’s mother, Dulcie, who believed, “the deep truth was that Emu-Wren had quickened Jimmie Blacksmith (pale or not) in the womb and that Mungara owed him a woman”. Dulcie’s belief is followed by a single sentence paragraph, “Yet here he was marrying a white girl off a farm”, which emphasises Jimmie’s rejection of his Aboriginal culture and that identity will become a central theme of the novel. In this sense it is important to note that the phrasing of this narratorial comment echoes Mrs Neville’s advice to Jimmie: “If you could ever find a nice girl off a farm to marry, your children would only be quarter-caste . . . and your grandchildren scarcely black at all” (p. 8).
These thematic threads are woven through a conventional structure that resembles a hero’s quest (or, in this case, anti-hero), especially in the journeying that it involves. The journey element allows an episodic structure in which Jimmie is confronted by diverse characters, places and experiences with which the novel is able to explore its themes. The crime element overlays the quest formula with a familiar provocation-revenge-pursuit-capture structure that is also dependent on a journey of sorts. The questing frame is alluded to early in the novel when the narrator states that young Aboriginal men “had become a little skeptical of the tribal cosmogony, even if they weren’t as clear-headed about it as Jimmie” and that heavy drinking of “cheap wine . . . was a tortured questingafter a new world picture for Mungindi man” (p. 8). This narrative comment is placed in between reference to Jimmie being influenced by Rev. Neville’s value system and his departure from Brentwood to live with the Nevilles in order to “better yerself” (Dulcie, p. 9). In this way, Jimmie is singled out as special in his potential to navigate a new path for Aboriginal men to recover their dignity within an alien, but dominant, culture. This potentially epic scope of Jimmie’s quest is further signaled by Dulcie’s lyrical farewell chant, which could easily be imagined being directed to Archilles in a Homeric epic:
Tall is my son going away.
The mountains will feel his heel,
And his hair catch on the stars. (p. 9)
Of course, Jimmie ultimately fails in his quest and, despite his declaration of war towards his white persecutors, he finished up “open[ing] his heart to Christ” (p. 187).
Students create a timeline which overlays the two conventional structures (hero’s quest and provocation-revenge-pursuit-capture sequence) upon the narrative events and Jimmie’s character development. Care should be taken to record the locations of events, which could be labelled on a NSW map. In addition to recording plot points, the timeline can also represent where thematic threads are woven within the narrative structure.
Narrative Point of View and Writing Style
The narrative voice comes from an omniscient third-person narrator looking significantly back on past events. The looking-back narrator is important in the sense that he acts as a mediating voice between the silenced Aboriginal perspective (and some white characters) and the modern reader. The modern narrative voice brings with it an implied authority that comes from the perceived political, social and cultural progress made This perspective is evident by the inclusion of modern references to explain events and characters’ actions and thoughts. For example, Rev. Neville’s inability to appreciate the significance of Jimmie’s absence for initiation rituals is explained thus: “If [Rev. Neville] had been a student of anthropology he would have been less baffled . . . [but] anthropology was a word he had never heard. It was, as well, two way traffic, demanding a specialized white awareness and talkative natives” (p. 4). One character who does appear to have this “specialized white awareness” is the school teacher hostage, Mr McCreadie, who happens to be partly informed of Aboriginal practice and belief systems by the part-time anthropologist, Andrew Lang. Thomas Keneally, as a liberal intellectual, would have been friendly to ideas concerning Aboriginal empowerment, recognition and redress for past injustices and McCreadie acts as a vehicle to express such modern interpretations and judgements on past events. For instance, when reflecting on the desecration of the Aboriginal sacred site: “It had become easy for [McCreadie] to believe that if the Taree footballers had not fallen to celebrating their skill on the consecrated stones of another race, there would have been no killing at the Newby’s. It seemed to him almost a principle of law, viable in a courtroom” (p. 159).
Other modern encroachments can be witnessed by choices of metaphor, simile and modern references to convey images in the novel. For example:
- “In our world, the delusions that killers let into their bloodstream are the stuff of newsprint and videotape” (p. 82);
- “So, faithfully, as if the [horse] had been fitted with tachometer” (p. 60);
- “On return to the Brentwood mission settlement: “Jimmie . . . slept strenuously, sapped and in shock. Perhaps what anthropologists would call cultural shock later on, too late to help Emu-Wren” (p. 34).
John Frow critiques this mode of narrative point of view because of the way it “contro[ls] categories through which aboriginal experience is translated into and recovered within an alien conceptual framework . . . [This] frame is imposed retrospectively, sealing the world of the novel in pastness and guaranteeing the narrator’s god-like authority” (The Chant of Thomas Keneally, p. 295).
Use of Irony
The perspective from a modern narrator is one that offers insights and interpretations of events and actions not available to the white, dominant characters. The application of this point of view results in many moments of dramatic irony that serve to present Jimmie’s persecutors and pursuers in an ignorant, judgemental and bigoted light. At other times the irony serves to emphasise the hypocrisy inherent in the white characters that view Aboriginal practices as primitive while they themselves are acting in immoral or perverse ways. Some examples of these moments of irony include:
- Rev. Neville not realising the solemn importance of Jimmie’s initiation and return, seeing the Brentwood community’s celebrations only in a patronising manner: “God must love those who greet mere absentees with so much humour” (p. 6);
- Senior Constable Farrell’s response to Jimmie abandoning his post as a police tracker, the morning after Harry Edwards is found hanged in his cell by Farrell’s belt: “Yer can’t trust ’em . . . Yer just git one of ’em into shape and they go on bloody walkabout” (p. 48);
- Dowie reacting to blood stained pillow at home where Jimmie reads secret correspondence between a married woman and a politician friend of her husband: “”The filthy bastard,” he said, as if Jimmie had somehow defiled the schoolteacher’s marriage” (p. 178).
Cultural and Social Identity
This theme is closely related to the theme belief system world views because a person’s belief system is a central part of their identity. They are separated here to avoid over-complicating identity issues and to reflect the significance placed on belief systems in the novel. Students should be asked to consider what constitutes their personal identity and what the concept of identity means to them: Do they feel they need to possess multiple identities? Or what forces shape their identity? Which of these are in, or not in, their control? How do other people perceive them? What would other people consider an important part of their identity? Why does it matter?
In Jimmie’s case his “mixed blood” is crucial to the plot, his internal conflicts and the novel’s themes. He is identified by the white characters as a “half-caste” which is a term that had social acceptance at the time and referred to the genetic percentage of Aboriginal parentage. At that time, it was widely believed that a person’s qualities, or character, was largely determined by their genetic make-up. These were ideas based on social-Darwinism and implied a hierarchy of inferior and superior races. Even at the time of writing, the 1970’s, the reference to proportions of Aboriginality as half/quarter/eighth caste was still in common use. Today, such distinctions are frowned upon. Instead, today for one to be recognised as Aboriginal (or Torres Strait Islander) he or she must be of “Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted by the community in which he [or she] lives” (Australian Law Reform Commission, Kinship and Identity). Time permitting, students can discuss why the modern determination of Aboriginality is better than notions of proportion. With many students having a mixed heritage it can be worth pondering whether “percentages” of one ethnic group or another in their family history has any meaning for them.
Given the widespread practice of of white men having sexual intercourse with Aboriginal women, as is made clear in the novel, Jimmie’s mixed heritage would not have been unusual. In the novel, however, he is the only one to be identified as such. With this in mind, it is not so much Jimmie’s lighter skin that set him apart, but a hint he was open to adopting white values. After all, in the “three years [after his initiation], by his own insight and under the Nevilles’ influence – [he began] to question [the] value [of his tribal] manhood” (p. 8). Meanwhile, the missionary impulse of Rev. Neville, that aims to assert a Christian influence upon his flock, is directed towards Jimmie:
“If a person could be certain,,” [Neville] said peevishly, “that [God] had imbued one of them with decent ambitions!”
[. . .] Mr Neville had thought he had a chance of bringing off the trick with eager, sober, polite Jimmie Blacksmith (p. 4).
So it was these perceived characteristics that brought him to the more focused attention of Rev. Neville.
As the novel progresses, Jimmie continues to distance himself from Mungindi cultural practices and beliefs, and accepts the set of values and ambitions that he believes are rightfully his to uphold by virtue of his white parentage. He actively distances himself from the Muswellbrook Aboriginal community when he declares to the Nevilles that “That mob make me sick, Mr Neville. I don’t want that crowd. I gotter start working so kin git property” (p. 15); at once turning his back on one cultural identity while reaching for acknowledgment in another. This disgust for his Aboriginal cultural heritage reaches a peak in his role as a police tracker where he takes part in the brutal “investigation”, his enthusiasm for the heavy-handed methods due to “being in a vindictive state of mind. The Verona people were to be punished for the vulnerability” (p. 41).
Representation and role of women
In addition to Jimmie’s motivations for targeting of women victims in his vengeful rampage, women play a complicated role in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Certainly, both Aboriginal and white women are victims of terrible physical violence or are demeaned in other ways. In terms of the theme related to cultural and social identity, women are constructed as the passive source for men’s confusion of cultural identity and unbridled sexual desires. For Jimmie, his desire for white women matched his ambition for other symbols of a white life. In fact, it was when he encounters a family shopping in town one day, he “fell in love with the eldest girl without delay” (p. 13) whereupon the reader is informed that if Jimmie “had looked upon his black initiation in an evangelical way, he might have come to call this moment the one in which he lost his black core” (p. 13).
The sexual desires of Jimmie and of the white male characters cause a complex dynamic between power and guilt. There is an unspoken acceptance by white men to engage in sexual promiscuity and adultery with Aboriginal women at the same time as a sense of shame for having strong desires for what they regarded as a primitive race. The openness with which white men can engage in sexual activity with Aboriginal women reflects the dominance they have over Aboriginal people and is a continuing act of violence and subordination, carried over from earlier years of conquest, while also being a source of intercultural conflict. Aboriginal men, however, do not feel the same attraction to white women, apart from Jimmie, of course, which contributes to his internal conflict of identity. Helpful passages which are focused on these attitudes to women include the exchange between Jimmie and Wongee Tom on (pp. 12-13) and the dialogue between Jimmie and Harry Edwards (p. 47).
The sense of shame that leads to violence is also expressed through Dowie Stead’s motivation for capturing Jimmie: “If now there was anything he wanted to pay off the black race for, it was not the killing of Miss Graf . . . it was for bringing his father and himself, both unbuttoned and grotesquely ready for the same black arse, face to face” (p. 96). The psychology behind such a perverse motivation can be difficult for students to grasp, but the sexual politics is worthy of an extended discussion with classes.
Dialogue as signifier of class and cultural identity
One of the key differentiators between characters in the novel is their spoken language, differences which serve several of the novel’s themes. Keneally writes the less formal English and Aboriginal English in the vernacular to convey a sense of accent and pronunciation. The Mungindi language is represented to be more poetic with simple sentences and rich imagery. As befits Jimmie as “a hybrid” (p. 29), he is able to engage with each of these languages and switch easily between them depending on the cultural group he is immediately interacting with. So when Jimmie says to a Verona resident, after hearing of Harry Edwards’ crime, “Yer kin bury ‘im yerselves” (p. 27) it is explained to readers that “The Mungindi were able to handle their aitches, the natives of Verona only some, but a rough sort of politeness made Jimmie copy them” (p. 27). A longer exchange of this sort of “politeness” is with Harry Edwards who is fearful of being left alone with Snr Constable Farrell with both men speaking in Aboriginal English (pp. 46-47).
Aboriginal English was often seen as an inferior, rougher form of Standard English and people who spoke it judged accordingly as inferior in character, even though there is now acknowledgement of it being a legitimate and complex dialect of English in its own right. It is worth making this clear to students because dismissive and prejudiced attitudes to Aboriginal English persist today. A short interview with emeritus professor of applied linguistics, Ian Malcolm, offers good insights into this topic as does a series of videos on the ABC’s Splash website. In The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith language becomes a tool with which to wield power over Aboriginal characters, and a justification for the prejudice inflicted upon them. This dynamic is foregrounded in the scene between Jimmie and the cook who “spoke like an educated Englishman” (pp. 49-51). In this scene, the cook patronises Jimmie and gleefully bamboozles him with unfamiliar vocabulary, perhaps for the benefit of his female spectator (who is later revealed as Gilda, Jimmie’s future wife). Such comments include:
- “Here comes the witchdoctor of the shearing floor” (p. 50).
- “Aha! Dark and deadly tribal secrets!” the cook called out like a busker at a country sideshow” (p. 50).
- “Ah, the practical turn of mind of the nomadic food-gatherer” (p. 50); a particularly patronising response to Jimmie’s simple offer to assist preparing the shearers’ meals.
This pattern of patronising ridicule clouds what might have otherwise been a genuine attempt to compliment by the cook about Jimmie being able to use “indefinite articles well . . . I’ve never met a black who could even use one before” (p.51). Jimmie is able to see that he is being attacked with language in the same way previous employers attacked his character by reference to other perceived deficits of Aboriginality. In his own defense against this linguistic attack Jimmie mounts a spirited response in which he “could feel a certain power of speech in him and he knew his eyes were flashing” (p. 51). It was a defense, however, centered on Jimmie’s work ethic to which the cook only “chuckled” in response because it confirmed for him Jimmie’s simple-mindedness. Of course, the cook’s victory is entrenched when it is revealed Gilda’s white baby was fathered by him, providing the ultimate humiliation to Jimmie.
In contrast to Aboriginal English, Mungindi is represented as poetic and rich with cultural allusions and imagery. This is done with the English translation written with formal syntax and words fully articulated. The exchange between Jimmie and Wongee Tom (pp. 11-13) presents a good opportunity for close study in dialogue written in Aboriginal English vernacular and Mungindi translation into English. In particular, Wongee Tom’s short monologue displays the poetic Mungindi with repetition, imagery and metaphor when talking of a woman he desires. But when returning to the subjects of daily existence with alcohol and heavy drinking he switches to Aboriginal English:
“”There’s a woman here,” Wongee Tom said in the tribal language. “She isn’t Mungara. She yawns for men and not with eyes. She drinks men down, she is a cave for men.” He laughed. In English he said: “But she don’t keep the rain off. We git together in the paddock behind the Caledonian. We git a young whitefella buy us sherry. We gotter drink ‘im bloody fast because bloody p’lice come round every hour. But there’s lubras round all the time, but this special one, Lucy, see”” (p. 13).
So, high tribal culture is expressed in Mungindi in reverent tones expressed even when speech is indirectly reported by the narrator as with Tabidigi’s reunion with Jimmie at the Newby property: “In invocatory style, Tabidgi recited all the well-omened places they passed, all the evil grounds too . . . Tabidgi’s utterence in these matters verged on the holy . . .” (p. 70).
The paper, Social identity and its reflection in communication by Jitka Vlckova offers an detailed close reading of some passages of dialogue and discusses what it can reveal about identity, social status and relationship dynamics.
Clash of Christian and Aboriginal world views
Use of Parallels and Contrasts
With Jimmie taking the position of a character ‘in-between’ two world views, and the novel exploring the clash of these world views, it is not surprising that comparison and contrast are significant structural devices used in the novel. Aspects of both world-views are revealed in parallel to each other and in juxtaposition as Jimmie moves between the two. This structure is established early on when, as soon as Jimmie returns from his initiation absence, he is taken to Rev. Neville’s study, described as a “sitting-room dignified by desk, an orbis terrarum, [and] three shelves of standard evangelical works” where he is “caned for truancy (p. 6).” The pain inflicted in the midst of symbols for intellectual study, scientific discovery and religious instruction can be seen as a second initiation into the white world. In case the point is missed, it is only a few lines later that the narrator declares that “the truth of Mr Neville and the truth of Emu-Wren ran parallel” (p. 7).
In his letter to the Methodist Church Times, Rev. Neville identifies the Western, European characteristics that he sees as alien to an Aboriginal mindset: “It was I who . . . encouraged particular ambition in Jimmie Blacksmith – the ambition to work and complete work, the ambition of owning property, the ambition of marrying a white woman . . . So one wonders if society is ready to accept the ambitious aborigine . . . Should we raise our own kind of hopes and ambition in them, ambitions of industry and honourable labour, of increase and ownership of property, connecting these hopes and ambitions to the message of Christ?” (p. 185). There are a number of assumptions present in Rev. Neville’s comments here that are worth identifying with students. For instance, the word “ambition” means to attain something of a higher order of value. What then is being implied about the apparently lower order values, actions and beliefs of Aboriginal world views – can these features of Aboriginal culture be identified?
Rev. Neville’s comment to the Methodist Church Times (quoted above) referring to “connecting these hopes and ambitions to the message of Christ” (p. 185) conflates Christian beliefs and ideals with accepted economic values, practices and systems. Similarly, the narrator makes the connection even more vivid when Jimmie takes his first steps towards his independence. Jimmie was taught, we are told, that possession, or owning property – whether land or material goods – is a “sacred state”, a “holy state” (p. 16). The missionary had succeeded not in converting Jimmie to the Christian teachings or belief system, but in having him adopt the corresponding Western economic values: “The Nevilles had succeeded so well as to make Jimmie a snob. In the mind of the true snob there are certain limited criteria to denote the value of a human existence. Jimmie’s criteria were: home, hearth, wife, land. Those who possessed these had beatitude unchallengeable. Other men had accidental, random life. Nothing better” (p. 17).
It is worth noting that the “other men” referred to here also include landless whites, so the “snobbery” refers to a property owner looking down upon even those uneducated paupers of their own race. For in this novel, we see different strata of the class structure that existed within the white population. There are labourers, shearers, shop owners, politicians, school teachers, office clerks, priests, land owners, ranch cooks, police constables. Amongst these exist a social hierarchy, but even the least educated, poorest white could treat Jimmie as an inferior. We witness this in Jimmie’s exchange with the cook on the shearing property where a still unnamed Gilda, Jimmie’s future wife, is also present. Following a dismissive remark by the cook, “Wayward girl that she was, she still thought she had a heritage and that she surpassed Jimmie” (p. 50). For Jimmie, it was the “home, hearth, wife, land” that would elevate him to a respectable position in society.
Jimmie’s younger brother, Mort, and uncle Tabidgi are “full-blooded” Mungindi and are constructed as strongly attempting to hold on to their traditional beliefs, despite the effects of dispossession and and alcohol consumption. Both men struggle with their part in the crimes, their conscience particularly struggling to cope with the female victims and the affront it causes to their spiritual beliefs. For Tabidgi, it is as if he becomes cursed, or “bedevilled” (p. 86), while Mort, who didn’t have the same motivation as Jimmie to rampage, chanted a Tullam war chant as if “trying to fit their movements into a tribal pattern” (p. 110). For Jimmie, however, the targeting of the women was central to his asserting power over them and inflicting brutal vengeance upon his male persecutors. This is foreshadowed at the end of his tenure with the Healys that ended with Jimmie “stung by the mystery: that a wondrous landowner should need to degrade him” and “demean” him with a punch for highlighting Healys illiteracy. The effect on Jimmie was to find himself “swear to possess [Mrs Healy] to depths that were probably not in her. It was strange how she had become inherent to his programme” (p.25). (See also above: Representation and role of women.)
The novel presents a bleak picture of the future for tribal culture and suggests it has been depleted and corrupted by dominant white influence, whether by way of missionaries, dispossession of lands, or the introduction of alcohol. It is not only hybrid Jimmie, that is feeling disconnected from his people’s spiritual underpinnings: “Most (Mungindi) men who weren’t old men had become a little sceptical of the tribal cosmogony, even if they were not as clear-headed about it as Jimmie. The very height of tribal manhood for some was the gulping of cheap wine in pub yards. That activity itself was a tortured questing after a new world picture for Mungindi man” (p. 8).
In the end, despite Jimmie’s declaration of war against his white persecutors, Jimmie surrendered himself, heart and soul, by “opening his heart to Christ . . . the sweetness of it carr[ying] him through a swift trial” (p. 187). Prior to this point, in the final days before capture, Jimmie finds himself in a convent horribly pained by a gunshot wound to the jaw. The section from where he is shot serves as a second initiation, ending the narrative where it began, with a rebirth of Jimmie: “He slept as his wound pained on. As any rebirth could be expected to” (p. 182). Even this accompanied by chanting, but this time it was “the chant of nuns” (p. 181). And with perfect symmetry, some of Jimmie’s teeth in his ruined jaw are removed in hospital (p. 182). So, Jimmie as the man whose path traversed two worlds, rebelled against both, is spiritually conquered. A point of discussion for students could be whether Jimmie’s defeat represents or symbolises a defeat for Aboriginal culture and spiritual beliefs; again the answers may vary depending on the contextual perspective taken: 1900, 1972, current day.
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Significance of Chants
Given the title and the many chants in the novel, it is worth considering the narrative, thematic and symbolic role of chants. A central question to be posed in this regard is: What is the chant referred to in the novel’s title? In considering this question it worth considering the several meanings and functions of chants:
- It can be a song or poetic narrative (see Jimmie’s chants, pp. 3, 4).
- It can be an incantation or charm.
- It can offer a ceremonial welcome or other ritualised function (see the ironic inversion of this in Jimmie’s arrival as a tracker dressed in police uniform, p. 42).
- It can be a medium of contact with the world of the spirits (see Tabidgi’s chant, p. 87; and, although the words of chant not heard, “the chant of nuns” [p. 181] probably belongs to this category).
The second function mentioned suggests a kind of magical or supernatural power of chants from where the word enchantment comes from. Equally important, in the context of Jimmie’s lost connection with his tribal cosmogony, it is where the word disenchantment has its roots. This makes the “chant of nuns” (p. 181) that Jimmie hears in the convent so significant as it is the final chant he hears. Could this be the chant of the title? (Give reasons for and against this proposition.)
Jimmie himself is only heard to chant twice in the novel, both during his initiation (p. 3,4) and belonging to the first category of chants. These are literally Jimmie Blacksmith’s chants, but don’t appear to have the significance warranted by the title’s “chant”.
Students to locate other examples of chants and identify to which category above they might belong. They then consider which of the categories of chant the title refers, and whether the novel itself could constitute a form of chant (that is, the narrative of Jimmy Blacksmith. It is worth discussing Les Murray’s poem The Ballad of Jimmy Governor to discuss the significance of the choice of words, chant and ballad.).
Australia’s uneasy path to an independent democracy
For an additional exploration and activity which contextualises Jimmie’s story against the historical background of the Boer War and federation, students may choose to undertake this related study (PDF, 110KB).
Creating a Reference Bank for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Using this retrieval chart (PDF, 214KB) as a template, instruct students to locate at least five textual references that address at least two of the themes. The activity works best when the document is made shareable online so all students can contribute to it. This can be easily done by uploading the document to Google Docs (you will need an account for this), making it public and then sharing the link with your students. The resulting document will make for an excellent resource for students in preparing their assessment piece. (Hint: The link provided by Google Docs will be very long. Try going to a url shortening service like bit.ly where you can submit any length url and convert it into something much shorter, and memorable like http://bit.ly/blacksmith.)
Instructions to be given to students:
Reference Bank for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith: this is a shared document to be filled in by the Year 11 Lit class. When complete, the table will serve as an excellent resource to locate relevant quotes and other references to The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith that will help you understand and write about the novel. The goal is to fill it in as much as possible by you all making a small contribution. Each of you is asked to contribute only five textual references that relate to at least two of the themesprovided on the chart’s top row, including at least two direct quotes.
These textual references can be in the form of direct quotes (at least 2); references to settings, characterisation, language choices, structure, genre, conflicts or representations. Please avoid writing what someone else has already contributed – UNLESS you can make the evidence relate to another theme OR elaborate upon what another person has said (write in your own row, but refer to other comment).
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Ways of reading the text
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith can be described as a work of postcolonial fiction. To understand the term postcolonialism, one must have a basic understanding of the global political, economic and ideological systems that shaped the world from early modern times – the system of colonialism itself.
Beginning in the fifteenth century European nations such as Britain, France, Spain, Holland and Portugal begin exploring the world with the aid of new technologies in travel and navigation. They claimed the “unsettled” lands of the “new world” for mostly political and economic (personal and national) gain. Almost without exception, the indigenous people of the non-European world where brutally killed, exploited, dispossessed and/or oppressed. The ideological system that supported and continues to support colonialism relies on the dominance of Eurocentricism; the belief European systems of belief and social organisation are inherently superior to non-European ways of being in the world. Non-European cultures were, and often continue to be, represented as brutal and savage – in need of taming. Keneally’s novel is synchronous with the philosophical and political movement termed postcolonialism in the way it draws attention to the unjust and irrational nature of racism and the hubristic nature of Eurocentric beliefs. In Australia, postcolonial texts often deal with the prejudice and violence experienced by Indigenous populace at the hands of Europeans at the various historical junctures of “settlement”.
While postcolonial writers are seen as belonging to the marginalised community that suffered at the hands of colonial powers, several of the characteristics and concerns of postcolonial writing noted by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin in The Empire Strikes Back(1989) resonate strongly in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. In particular:
Concerns of postcolonial writing
- Reclaiming spaces and places. This element is clearly evident when Jimmie, Mort and McCreadie spend time at the womb-shaped initiation ground that had been desecrated by white picnickers and left abandoned because the “poor blacks [had been] herded together down at Purfleet” (p. 154). With Mort undertaking rituals and some effort going towards restoring the sacred tjuringa stones, a degree of dignity is restored to the ancient place and culture.
- Asserting cultural integrity. Together with the characteristic of resistant descriptions(below) readers of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith will have insights into the complexities of Aboriginal culture not afforded to the majority of white participants of the time. This is often done ironically with white characters completely misunderstanding situations. One such example is Rev. Neville’s patronising response to the celebrations upon Jimmie’s return from a sacred initiation ceremony. As well as elevating traditional Aboriginal culture by more detailed description, white culture, historically represented as superior, is revealed to possess a moral depravity that is diminished to the relative elevation of Aboriginal customs. There are numerous examples of immoral behaviour by white actors: Mr Newby exposing himself to Gilda; Snr Constable Farrell sodomising Harry Edwards; raping and impregnating Aboriginal women; and so on.
- Revising history. Clearly, fashioning Jimmie Blacksmith as a rebel to imperial injustice is a response to the contemporary account of of Jimmy Governor being merely a barbarous savage.
Characteristics of postcolonial writing
- Resistant descriptions.
- Appropriating language of colonial power. Some might argue that the highest form of the English language is poetry, and it is in this form that the Mungindi language is given expression for readers. Its rich imagery and lyrical quality contrasts sharply with all of the other dialogue spoke in the novel. This also serves the above concern of asserting cultural integrity.
- Re-working colonial art forms. This is perhaps the characteristic of postcolonial writing of least relevance in relation to The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith which is a rather conventional and conservative application of the novel form.
The Australian History Wars
In many ways the events represented in Keneally’s novel pre-empt a heated series of public debates known as the History Wars. These “wars” – beginning in the mid-1980s and running for two decades – were a series of speeches, books, newspaper and journal articles among particular factions of politicians and public intellectuals. Revisionist historians had recently performed important work about frontier history in Australia and convincingly argued that the settlement of Australia was anything but peaceful and benign, a notion that was previously widely believed. Instead, increasing amounts of evidence demonstrated that various historical events had been repressed, particularly those related to massacres of Indigenous groups, the sexual exploitation of Indigenous women, the devastation of cultural dispossession and displacement of Indigenous people all over the country. The historians (Robert Manne, Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan among others) and politicians (most prominently, former Prime Minister Paul Keating) advocated the ethical position that this previously unrecognised history must be acknowledged and reparation be made. The opposing side of debate believed that Manne, Reynolds and others had placed too much emphasis on the negative or shameful aspects of Australian history and that more credit should be given to Australians for the triumphs in the nation’s history. The most prominent “warriors” on this side were the intellectuals Geoffrey Blainey, Keith Windschuttle and former Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard. People in this camp would regard The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as reflecting a “black armband” view of Australia’s history.
Comparison with other texts including such approaches as:
Thomas Keneally has acknowledged that his inspiration for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith came from reading the Frank Clune‘s 1959 novel, Jimmy Governor. While Clune sought to base his novel on the actual events and experiences of Jimmy Governor, Keneally found in the novel “a hint of what the whole subject meant” (Goldsmith, 1976, p. 43). From this statement we can see that Keneally wanted to interpret the historical events surrounding Jimmy Governor in a way to give the horrific murders some kind of meaning. This would involve adding, removing and altering details of the events to suit the thematic imperatives of the novel. To allow for more freedom to do this, Keneally invented new characters, albeit strongly based on their historical equivalents.
Goldsmith’s 1976 article provides a good overview of where Keneally departed from the historical record and these decisions serve as useful signposts pointing towards thematic points being raised. For example, Jimmy Governor was hanged on 14 January, 1901 (very soon after Federation), but Keneally chose for his character to be executed after Easter that same year. This allowed for sensitivities related to Federation to be foregrounded (in relation to Australian troubled path to nationhood) and for Christian imagery and references to be emphasised (in relation to cultural identity and clash of belief systems).
Students fill in a rectangular Venn diagram (PDF, 189KB) divided into elements of construction. While reading Goldsmith’s article and “The life of Jimmy Governor” that follows the 2013 edition of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, students note where elements of construction such as characters, settings, events and dates are similar and different between Keneally and Clune’s novel (and the historical record). Students consider the creative decisions made by Keneally and what effect these had on the novel’s characters and themes, or, to approach it from a different angle, what might have motivated such decisions?
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith the movie
The 1978 adaptation, directed by Fred Schepisi was a critical success all over the world, but a commercial failure in Australia, perhaps because of the confronting subject matter. While viewing segments of the film may be useful in helping students visualise aspects of c.1900 Australia, its main function in the novel study would be to highlight the thematic embellishments possible in the novel form. An effective ‘episode’ to illustrate this would be when Jimmie takes on work as a police tracker, which aligns with the events of Chapter Five. The film offers very little indication about why Jimmie took this job, or even how he came by it. Jimmie’s brutal actions towards the Verona community is not given explanation, and nor is his contempt for them and Harry Edwards, the killer of a white free-holder’s son.
Students view the film extract concerning Jimmie’s time as a police tracker (commencing 25:36) and are asked to imagine not having read the book. What questions might come to mind to someone not familiar with the novel? Accumulate these questions and look in the novel to see if and how they are answered: by narrative comment? Jimmie’s thoughts or dialogue? Additional characterisation? Have students consider what the novel adds in terms of their making of meaning and compose a paragraph where one idea is developed.
Conversely, how does the film elicit particular responses from its viewers. Are these responses more strongly directed towards different elements of these scenes in the film than the novel? What are some elements of construction available to film-makers that are not available to novelists; how are these put to effect?
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Other Jimmy Governor representations
The historical figure of Jimmy Governor has been the subject of various creative and scholarly works, the very production of which comes close to mythologising him and his actions. These can be a good source for a study in representations, particularly in the way purpose, audience, genre and relevant textual conventions are applied to influence readers/audiences.
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- Expository text: The True Story of Jimmy Governor by Laurie Moore and Stephan Williams
The first chapter of this detailed account is available to read from the Amazon.com website. It can be useful to examine the contents page as a class and other elements available to view to get a sense of structure, tone and perspectives presented.
- Folk ballad: Brother Joe and Me by Bob Campbell
As well as the audio of the ballad, it is worth including the web-page on which it is found to analyse how Jimmy Governor is being represented.
- Poem: The Ballad of Jimmy Governor by Les Murray
- Website: Jimmy Governor Forensic by Pamela Mawbey. Pamela Mawbey is a descendent of Jimmy Governors first victims, upon whom the Newbys are based on in Keneally’s novel. Like some of the descendants of Ned Kelly’s victims, she critiques the mythologising surrounding Jimmy Governor and attempts to paint her ancestor more sympathetically (for this see the post from February 23, 2013).
- After each text is introduced to the class, students are formed into four “home-groups“. Each home-group member is allocated a letter A, B, C, or D with each letter corresponding to one of the above texts.
- Then all A’s, B’s, C’s and D’s get together to form expert groups which are given the task of examining their allocated text together (if time permits, it is worth allowing some individual analysis first).
- The analysis should focus on elements of construction for each genre (including structure, language choices, imagery, and genre-specific conventions) which serve to represent Jimmy Governor, other significant people, the 1900 Australian social/political setting and events in particular ways.
- The second aspect of analysis is to identify thematic links to The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and comment on how each text addresses that theme.
- Students return to their home-groups to report on their allocated text.
Texts exploring similar themes
- One Night The Moon: Short film (54 mins), musical. Set in the early twentieth century on an isolated property where a young girl goes missing. Her white, racist father won’t accept the help of the Aboriginal tracker.
- Walkabout [trailer]. Iconic 1971 film where two white children become lost in the desert and are saved by a young Aboriginal man. Together they must face violent, white interlopers.
- Took the Children Away (1990): Archie Roach song about the trauma of children removed from their families
- The poetry of Judith Wright often explored Indigenous issues. In particular, look for ‘Bora Ring’ (1948); ‘Nigger’s Leap, New England’ (1946); ‘At Coolalah’ (1955); ‘Two Dreamtimes’ (1973); ‘The Dark Ones’ (1976).
- The poetry of Oodgeroo Noonaccul for an Indigenous voice.
- Yolngu Boy movie: Three young Yolngu Boys face the challenges of reconciling their traditional culture with modern day Australian challenges.
- This review of Breaker Morant is useful in some comments made about dramatisations of historical events, while the trailer to the film on the same page gives a glimpse into the Boer War challenges and atrocities that Australians faced. There is also a sense of the tension between Australian soldiers and British Empire.
Prepared with note-taking paper headed with the central themes focused on in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, students watch, read or listen to a range of the above texts or extracts. While doing so they should record how each text covers similar thematic ground to Keneally’s novel. Time should also be given to reflect on their emotional and intellectual responses to each of them. After doing this with several texts, students can share their responses and observations in groups. Each group should report on at least one of the texts to the class.
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Identifying and justifying language/stylistic techniques for specific narrative or dramatic purposes
Writing from an Aboriginal perspective
Some people believe that there are ethical problems with writing from an Indigenous viewpoint, the way that Keneally does in this novel. In fact, Keneally himself admitted in a 2002 interview that if he were to again write the novel on the same subject matter he would not “presume to put myself in the mind of a tribalised half-Aboriginal half-European” because “generally unless you’re part of a culture it is hard to put yourself in another culture.” These are sentiments he repeats in the 2013 edition’s Author’s Note. Instead, Keneally says that he would write from an outside observer. This is the approach taken by Kate Grenville in her novel, The Secret River. Grenville noted in her memoir,Searching for the Secret River, that “I’d always known I wasn’t going to try to enter the consciousness of the Aboriginal characters. I didn’t know or understand enough, and felt I never would. They – like everything else in the book – would be seen through Thornhill’s (a white settler’s) eyes” (p. 193). This could be considered an easier task given that Grenville’s main story centred on a white convict-come-settler.
The following positions have been taken by Indigenous writers over the last two decades. Students can be asked for their responses to them:
- It is wrong for a white Australian who has only known a life of relative privilege to write from the position of a marginalised Indigenous Australian. The act of writing in this way reflects an assumption that white people can straightforwardly understand Indigenous experience and suffering.
- White Australians do not understand the cultural nuances of Indigenous culture and experience, therefore should not attempt to write from it. It is naive and racist to think an authentic indigenous “voice” can be so easily produced.
- White writers should not assume that they can “speak for” Indigenous Australians. This may contribute to a cultural silencing of Indigenous voices that, in a just society, must be allowed to speak for themselves.
An alternative position, espoused by Indigenous scholar, Marcia Langton, is to recognise that there is no single Aboriginality to be quarantined from any group of writers. Instead, Aboriginality is a field of “intercultural subjectivity . . . that is remade over and over again in a process of dialogue, of imagination, of representation and interpretation. Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people create ‘Aboriginalities’ ” (Aboriginal Art and Film: The Politics of Representation, 2003, p. 118-119). This process is reflected on a large scale by our continuing practice of referring to all Aboriginal tribes or language groups as one homogeneous group (a matter of convention and convenience that is repeated in this unit of work). It is a distinction that is addressed in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by the way readers learn about the specific Mungindi culture when the focus is on that community, while all interactions between Jimmie and the white world are framed within a generic “Aboriginal” or other disparaging variations. Jimmie himself conforms to this generic expression of Aboriginal identity when he calls his brother a “Fuckin’ stupid boong” (p. 155) out of spiteful envy after Mort paints his face with ceremonial markings before entering a sacred site. The face painting itself is explained in terms of Mort needing to “use every subterfuge in the heart place of another race” (p. 155) thereby recognising the distinctiveness of each tribe.
Rich assessment task
Students select a significant episode from the novel and write a report on how it links to various aspects of the novel study. The length is 1000 words and will contain direct references from the novel or other sources. Depending on the topics chosen, a recommended structure for the report is:
- Introduction that introduces novel, author and selected episode, including its context.
- Body comprising 4-5 topics under clear headings. These topics can refer to, for example:
- Characterisation techniques employed in the episode and their effects;
- Internal structure of the episode;
- The role of the episode in the novel’s larger structure;
- How the episode contributes to thematic concerns (there could be multiple headings for multiple themes);
- Language choices and their effect on different narrative elements;
- Links between episode and other texts; etc.
- Appendix consisting of a photocopy of episode showing the student’s annotation.
The rationale for a report format is to allow a greater range of reading understandings and skills to be demonstrated without the added degree of difficulty that comes from formulating an extended argument.
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Synthesise core ideas
Activity: Panel discussion
Panel discussions are ideal vehicles through which students demonstrate understandings and gain experience in engaging in literary discourse. The activity presented here is not formally assessed so they gain confidence in the format (although panel discussions can be used as an effective assessment mode). It is also designed to act as a revision of major concepts and knowledge covered during the unit and takes advantage of small group discussion to explore ideas, clarify concepts and develop skills. The audience will also benefit from each panel discussion by listening to other interpretations and responses to Wright’s poetic and critical works. Since the panel discussion requires students to synthesise knowledge and skills gained over previous lessons, extensive preparation time is not required. In fact, minimal preparation time is preferred so students focus on revising what they know and avoiding having the activity distract from their formal assessments.
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Teachers can follow these suggested guidelines:
- Divide students into groups of four or five.
- Each group member prepares comments specifically addressing:
- an attitude that has shifted over the course of reading or study;
- their attitude towards the question of the novel’s literary merit;
- an aspect of the novel that has had the biggest impact for them.
- The time given to each panel discussion should equate to an average speaking time of three minutes per student (that is, 15 minutes for a five-member group).
- A simple set of prompt cards can be created to stimulate discussion and should be placed face-down near the panel. Should the panel members struggle to keep the discussion flowing, the top card can be selected to shift the discussion to that topic. These cards can read: narrative point of view, themes, ideas, contexts, structure, representation of history, history wars, characterisation, setting, representing Aboriginal culture and world views
- Some guidance should be given about the purposes and conventions of panel discussion; principally, it is not a debate where points are given for diminishing the contributions of others in the eyes of the audience/assessor. Rather, all members are responsible for the success of the discussion by maintaining the flow of ideas. This means coming prepared with questions to ask of each other and willingly responding to other members’ comments, whether to agree, disagree, elaborate, seek clarification, or support with other examples. A panel discussion guide is provided for students to be aware of conventions and expectations.
Rich assessment task
The imaginative assessment task presented here involves students choosing a minor character of the novel and embellishing details of his/her connection to the Jimmie Blacksmith narrative. The 1000 word creative composition will be accompanied by an 500-800 explanation/rationale of creative choices made.
Creative writing aspect:
- Choice of character must interact with Jimmie Blacksmith or other Aboriginal characters in some way.
- Student needs to consider how to represent Aboriginal characters.
- Form can be left open-ended. For example, students can choose to write prose in the form of a short story or as a creative addition to the existing novel. It can be in the form of a journal, letter to a loved one, or memoir for a turn-of-the-century audience in England.
- Some dialogue needs to be included.
- A conscious effort to address one of the novel’s themes needs to be demonstrated.
- Reasons provided for the selection of minor character.
- Identifies characterisation techniques employed for particular effects.
- Explains and justifies approach in representing Aboriginal characters.
- Explains choice of form and how this choice affected their writing.
- Explains the way their writing contributes to a particular theme.