At the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s it is estimated that 30,000 unemployed Australian men took to the road in search of work, often leaving their wives and children to struggle on in the cities and towns. A few women did the same. They took whatever work came their way, fruitpicking, laboring, selling items they had made, often exploited by farmers, viewed with suspicion by locals who were struggling themselves, and moved on by police. On occasions they worked for food alone.
The Battlers by Kylie Tennant (published 1941) follows the journeys of a group travellers on the track in country New South Wales. The main characters are Snow and Dancy, called ‘The Stray’ by Snow. Snow, a loner, has left his wife and children behind in the search for work. Dancy, from the slums of Sydney, prematurely aged at only 19, has been deserted by her husband on the road. When Snow discovers Dancy trying to rob him, they form an unlikely partnership. They are joined in their travels by other battlers in similar straits – ‘The Busker’, Harley Duke a young man with aspirations as a singer; Dora Phipps, a genteel educated woman fallen on hard times, moralizing but always with an eye out for her own benefit. The story follows their travels as they struggle to survive, dreaming of better things (in Dancy’s case, initially, a set of false teeth), make pragmatic partnerships and surprising friendships.
The narrative realistically presents the bleakness and hardship of life on the road, not only the treatment of the travellers by townspeople and farmers but life in the camps outside towns with their own rules and hierarchies. All the characters are strongly and compassionately drawn, showing the humanity of even the more dubious characters. Tenant’s prose is understated and carries the flavor of the language of the ordinary Australian of that period with the black humour that got people through the worst of times. The harshness of the Australian landscape is vividly brought to life from the heat and dust to the cold rain and floods, yet there are also moments of beauty. Tenant’s political philosophy shows through on occasions, but as most people of the time had views on what was fair and just and what had got the world into the state it was, no realistic novel could avoid considering politics in some form.
The Battlers is based on Kylie Tennant’s own experiences when she went on the road herself for several months to experience first hand the life of the itinerant unemployed workers she intended to write about. The main characters are based on people she met along the way. It is an Australian classic and has been compared to Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath although the ending is far more hopeful than Steinbeck’s. It was awarded the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society in 1942 and shared the Sydney Bulletin‘s S. H. Prior Memorial prize in 1940.
Kylie Tennant is one of a number of impressive Australian female authors writing between the wars such as Katharine Susannah Prichard, M. Barnard Eldershaw (Marjory Barnard and Flora Eldershaw), Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead and Dympna Cusack. Their stories still resonate and show the harsh reality of the lives of working and underprivileged Australians that period.
A more detailed review can be found here.