Australia's indigenous people were first granted equal rights under the law in 1967, following the only successful referendum since Federation in 1901. Prior to the referendum, Aboriginals were governed under various State and territory laws, none of which recognised them as citizens with civil rights. This dramatic change resulted in a number of novels and films over the ensuing five years focusing mainly on historical issues. Perhaps the immediate issues were too confronting - the first land rights claim was made in 1968.
In this context, Keneally's novel is important for the scope it encompasses and the range of issues it canvasses. Jimmie Blacksmith can be seen as the victim of a bygone age or he can be seen as symbolic of the struggle between assimilationist and integrationist policies that characterise the 1967 change in legislation. The blatant racism he experiences from the farmers who exploit him amplify the inappropriateness of his mission-bred beliefs.
He has been disinherited from his traditional beliefs but he is barred from inheriting the benefits of the white Christian veneer that obscure it.
First published in 1972, the novel was re-released in 1979 in response to the international success of Fred Schepisi's filmed version heralding a shift in Australian attitudes towards their indigenous people.
Initiated into the Tullam clan of the Mungindi tribe, Jimmie Blacksmith is more influenced by the values of Rev Neville, the Methodist missionary. Filled with ideas of marrying a white girl and owning his own property, Jimmie leaves the mission with a reference from his mentor. Rejected and ridiculed for his reference, Jimmie eventually finds a job as a fencer with the austere Mr Healy, who cheats him and refuses a reference when the job is completed. Undaunted, Jimmie takes more fencing jobs until he meets a white servant girl, Gilda,