Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 2, 2012

The Battlers, by Kylie Tennant, read by Jacklyn Kelleher

The BattlersOne of my favourite innovations of the digital age is the audio book that can be downloaded for free from a local library.  I belong to the Casey-Cardinia library (near work) and the Kingston library (near home) and both offer this service, which is facilitated through Bolinda Audio.  All that’s needed is to log in with a current library card, download to a computer, and then either listen to it using Windows Media or transfer it to an iPod using iTunes.  After four weeks the loan expires, and the files should be deleted.

During the holidays I downloaded The Battlers, a novel by the journalist Kylie Tennant (1912-1988).  This classic of Australian literature was written in 1941 during WWII but it was based on Kylie Tennant’s extraordinary research during the Depression. In the introduction she explains how she wrote this novel: joining unemployed itinerant workers on the road and living as they did, sharing the same awful living conditions, poor food, and prejudice from respectable people in towns.  It’s a remarkable piece of reportage and a novel which despite its flaws can stand the test of time.

Tennant was a city girl: she’d been educated in Sydney, and she’d had no experience with the horse she needed to pull her caravan.  In the Introduction, she tells how a kindly drover showed her how to knot a harness to control the animal but in her inexperience she made a slip knot by mistake – and watched horrified and guilt-stricken as the terrified animal strangled itself.   That she chose to share this gruesome experience shows that far from being hardened by her experiences on the track, she was still haunted by this incident a lifetime later.

An Australian Life: Kylie TennantHunting around online for biographical information about this author, I also found it was saddening to  learn from a review by Peter Pierce of Jane Grant’s biography An Australian Life: Kylie Tennant that Kylie Tennant had a terrible life of grief and hardship herself, especially in her latter years.   Her husband, who suffered from depression, injured himself grievously in a suicide attempt, and her son who was a drug addict, was bashed and murdered.  The compassion Tennant showed towards one of the murderers was heroic.

Perhaps it was her experiences on the Track which enabled her to recognise humanity in all its forms without judging.  As a young woman, Tennant had certainly witnessed terrible hardship.  Those who took to the track in search of occasional work during those dreadful Depression years were often hungry, cold and wet or scorched by the sun and wind, harassed by authorities, exploited by callous employers and – despite the camaraderie which sometimes developed, often very lonely too.  And yet this is not a dreary book.  Occasionally Tennant lets her socialist philosophy get the better of her narrative but by and large this is an uplifting testament to the human spirit, enlivened by a fine cast of characters.

Snow, the reticent central character, is a drifter, not home much, and not much welcomed by his wife Molly when he returns.  He has an instinct for knowing when things are ‘different’, however, and isn’t much impressed by his wife’s new ‘lodger’, Derek.  (It’s not just that he talks too much about trivial things, either.)  But Tennant doesn’t make judgements: the loneliness of the wife left behind is hard to bear but it’s no life for a wife and kids on the track either.  ‘If you could only have got a steady job!’ wails Molly, but there are no jobs and this must have been one of many marriages broken up by unemployment and poverty.  The saddest aspect of this is that separation in those days meant complete separation: men left –  and believing that it was best for the kids to make it a complete break, often severed all ties to the family.  Most kids never saw their fathers again.  The farewell scene is heartbreaking.

The motley collection of battlers includes

  • ‘The Stray’, Dancy, a brave but vulnerable young woman who’s only 19 but toothless and weathered by hardship. She looks as if she’s 60.  She was abandoned on the track by her husband;
  • ‘The Busker’ aka The Yodelling Rouseabout, who collects Australian songs along the track with the ambition of making money;
  • Miss Phipps, an educated woman fallen on hard times.  She has grand dreams for reorganising the world, and takes the high moral ground whenever the opportunity presents itself, but is quite capable of taking the main chance when it arises too.

The battle to survive is tough indeed, and prejudice is everywhere.  Shopkeepers try hard to keep the travellers out – with good reason sometimes because they gang up to conceal petty thieving that often accompanied genuine purchases.   At the camp beside the riverbank, a caste system operates even amongst the down-and-out, with ‘permanent residents’ looking down on the travellers, and all of them looking down on the ‘dark people’.

People exploited these unemployed with miserable pay rates for occasional work, which no worker could refuse because a complaint from an employer meant no dole would be paid. Futile attempts at unionism petered out because people moved on, and pay that was acceptable to a young single man was not enough for a married man with children.

In the central section of the novel there are times when the polemics become a bit wearisome.  One character after another seems to launch into a speech about poverty, disenfranchisement, exploitation and so on, and the sense of Them and Us is further reinforced by little sermons from the narrator and arguments about unionism.

Fortunately the characterisation is enough to shine through this and provide light relief.  Harry ‘The Apostle’ Postlewaite and his wife are a generous kindly couple and take Dancy on for a while when Snow, a classic introvert who likes being on his own, goes chasing work  in Crookwell where ‘it’s no place for a woman’.

Then there’s Dick and ‘Thirty Bob’ who offer to take Dancy with them.  They have a code-of-honour that might ‘take down’ any man but never would rip off any woman, but Dancy declines their offer.  She decides instead to stay on with Mrs Marks, an interesting contrast because she’s a miserable old woman who doesn’t hesitate to exploit Dancy.  Dancy had taken this job with her so that she could stay in town while Snow was in hospital – but it’s a job of household drudgery and Mrs Marks, apart from her endless moaning, is always trying to work her harder and pay her less.

It’s when Snow is gone and Dancy is about to take off after him that Jimmy, Snow’s son turns up.  Mrs Marks is no fool and she’s worked out that Dancy and Snow aren’t married, and she’s pretty sure that Jimmy isn’t her kid.  But Dancy has sharpened up a bit and gets away with absconding with the boy because she offers to leave without asking Mrs Marks for her last week’s pay.  The two set off on after Snow on foot, and suffer terrible hardships on the way, a testament to loyalty and determination that reminded me John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

The narration by Jacklyn Kelleher isn’t fantastic.  She over-emphasises Dancy’s comparative youth and naïveté so that she sounds like a child rather than a young woman in her twenties, and sometimes her ‘elocution’ voice breaks through the working-class accents of the characters, which sounds rather odd.  Still, there are a lot of diverse characters to portray, and most of them are convincing.

Michael Heyward is right to say that Aussie Classics ‘are going to waste’.  The Battlers is an example of the kind of Aussie Classic that more readers could be seeking out, enjoying, and learning from.  I haven’t read enough novels of this period to assert this strongly, but – based on this reading of The Battlers (1941), and of The Pea Pickers by Eve Langley (1942), and Vance Palmer’s The Big Fellow, (1959)  –  it seems to me that there was a strong social justice streak in Australian writing of the 1940s and 1950s.  It offers a portrait of an Australia most of us do not recognise but should, in my opinion, know about, because as the generation that lived through the Depression passes on, stories like these matter more and more.  They are part of our heritage.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Kylie Tennant
Title: The Battlers
Narrator: Jacklyn Kelleher
Publisher: Bolinda Digital Audio 2010, first published 1941
ISBN: 9781742604657
Source: Kingston Library

Availability:
Fishpond: The Battlers


Responses

  1. Oh there absolutely was, Lisa, from the 1920s on — with Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Frank Dalby Davison, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Dymphna Cusack and so on. These were really special years – 1920s to 1950s – I think. Many of these writers were very politically active – they had a real fire in the belly about what they were doing.

  2. You touched on one of the reasons I am not fond of the Audio Book Lisa. Usually the Narrators make the characters different than they sound in my head and I am so used to what goes on in my head that I prefer my own slant! These “others” so often sound like interlopers.

    • I’m a bit with you Karen Lee … I don’t listen to audiobooks much though they have their place like the sorts of commutes Lisa does, partly because the voice/s can often really irritate me.

  3. Sue, I sense a Monday Musings on this topic?
    BTW My next ‘oldie’ is The Irishman by Elizabeth Conner but that’s 1960, a little later than this one….

    • Yes, I’m thinking … I’ve sort of mentioned them before (the triumvirate) but I’m thinking focusing from this angle is worth another go.

      The Irishman was made into a film I think, wasn’t it, in our 1970s era of nostalgic films?

      • Hmm, The Irishman, I don’t know, I’ve never heard of it as a film. It was devilishly difficult to find a copy of the book!

        • Yes, it was. I’ve just checked … made by Donald Crombie in 1978 from the novel. Starred Robyn Nevin, among others.

  4. One of the(many) reasons that I have trouble with audio books is the changing format. Even my rural library has at least 5 formats that I’m aware of, all the way from cassettes- can anyone play those anymore, up to some new reader from Bolinda that I’m not quite sure how it works. I don’t think we have dowloadable audio as yet, but haven’t tried it. I find it confusing. I bought home a CD of The Rabbit Proof Fence last year, but didn’t realise til I tried to play it in my (old) car (now sold), that it was an mp3 CD and so needed a new player. It’s a mess! Thus far I’ve stuck to CDs, although I have just managed to download a podcast that I need to listen to for work, and put it on the iphone (after some technical problems, with my itunes library being external to the laptop), so I am possibly ready to conquer a new technology.

    • I know you mean: one of my libraries has a strange new thingy that baffles me. It plugs into an mp3 player thingy in your car, but I don’t have one. Silly me, they asked me if I wanted one – and a navman – when I bought my new car, and I said, whatever for? I did get the 6CD player which is super, but I didn’t know then that my eyesight would get too bad even to read a large print Melways, or that I would want to play my iPod audiobooks on the way to work – and that was only four years ago!

      • I assume you do know about those attachments that connect your iPod to the car radio via the cigarette lighter? Our car is 7 years old and doesn’t have the mp3 aux input so we use this Belkin thingy. Our first Honda Jazz … Which son now has and which is nearly 8 years old … Has the mp3 input as standard.

  5. I am an avid fan of audio books, but rarely has the narration annoyed me as this one. I am determined to get to the end as the book is my choice for my current book club topic. I look forward to the day when a robust Australian voice records it.
    I am finding the story and the characters are giving me an insight not only into the history of the period, but also the legacy of the Depression for those who survived. In my work which at times brings me into contact with the ageing cohort of survivors (I am a migrant and have no family story of this time in Australia to relate to), I begin to see in the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of those who were children at that time, the dogged determination to survive as individuals, trying to be self reliant but as the years catch up physically, they have to reluctantly accept help.
    On a practical note, I got a Bluetooth speaker when the ‘not touching your mobile in the car while driving’ law came in last October in NSW and as well as being able to answer my calls, I can listen to books through it – just make sure you get a device that can do both.

    • Hello Christina, welcome!
      I must admit that I was a bit surprised by what seems like an English accent on this recording, but then, it is only comparatively recently that the ‘robust’ Aussie accent has reigned supreme.
      The book is indeed a wonderful insight into an era whose survivors are now so few, and it’s a pity that there is so little Australian drama on TV because I would love to see a dramatisation of this book.
      That’s very helpful advice about the Bluetooth: I shall certainly investigate now that I know such a thing exists, thank you!
      Lisa

  6. Hi Lisa
    I see there is a DVD – Gary Sweet as Snow (not having seen it, I can’t help feeling he was not the right choice), Jacqueline McKenzie as Dancy – she could be very good in the part. It was made in the 90s.
    Cheers
    Christina

    • Thank you for this info, I’ll see if I can get a copy from somewhere… maybe my library has it.

  7. […] Secondhand Bookshop!  He refers to Kylie Tennant’s The Battlers  (1941)  which I have read and reviewed and also The Pea-pickers (1942) which I have read but not reviewed here.  Recently released in […]

  8. […] families) were searching for work in what was the worst year of the Depression.  As you can see in my review of The Battlers what she did was what they did: camping out; being moved on and out of towns that didn’t want […]


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