by Jo-Anne Reid

Jo first read Tiburon in the context of researching the history of teacher education. Here she gives us her thoughts on being asked to re-read it.


Over twenty years ago, my colleagues Bill Green, Phil Cormack and I were researching the history of teacher education in Australia in the years between Federation and World War 2. Bill and I were living in Armidale, NSW, at the time, teaching at UNE and becoming more and more interested in the history of the particular present we were living there – where too many of our students were leaving rural schools underprepared for university education, and then returning to teach in other rural schools after just managing to pass their courses. 

We saw the cycle of student underperformance and lack of attention to the preparation of teachers for teaching in rural schools as a major policy failure, and we watched a spiral of regular government inquiries into the ‘disadvantaged’ state of rural education.  Our historical investigations were showing that this had been the case since the beginnings of education in Australia.

Our student teachers were predominantly smart country girls, never fully extended by their schooling, and perhaps still remembering the social status that teachers had had in their country towns among the other transient professionals. We were fascinated by the old Teachers College in the town, and the efforts that the College had made to bring ‘culture’ to the students who came to train there, when it was founded in 1928.

I first came across Tiburon in this context – after a motivated search for ‘Australian literature’ featuring ‘women teachers’ in the ‘1930s’.  We had confirmed early in our study that Australian teachers have always been mostly female. My set of very clear search terms afforded only this novel, which serendipitously aligned with both Brian James’ The Advancement of Spencer Button and our discovery at Armidale Teachers’ College (ATC) of a set of letters from the women and men in the first cohort of graduates.  These had been written at the end of 1931, in response to the College Principal’s invitation for the former students to reflect on the efficacy of their training, after their first year of teaching. 

So in 2002, I read Tiburon with a clear purpose. It was not the reading I might have given it if I’d found the novel twenty years earlier, when I was still youngish.  I might have chosen Tiburon, in my teens and twenties, as a sort of companion piece to Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, or after enjoying the TV adaptation of Tennant’s Ride on Stranger, but I had never come across it (or much other Australian literature) in my university courses. 

Then, in my forties, I read for Jessica Daunt – for the depiction of her arrival in Tiburon as a brand-new primary school teacher; for her appraisal of the Warning Hill one-teacher schoolhouse; for her interactions with her pupils and the Dwyer family with whom she had to board; and for other aspects of her life in and out of school. 

I was disappointed, in the end, that although Sylvia Martin and I found lots of significance to compare and validate in the Armidale graduates’ letters (“Speak softly…..”, Reid & Martin, 2003), so little detail of the everyday experience of bush teaching had made it into the novel.  I couldn’t ‘hear’ the sort of language and teaching routines Miss Daunt would have used in her classroom, I couldn’t quite ‘see’ the blackboard, or the inkwells, or what was on the walls.

But I was thrilled to find a telling account of Jessica’s efforts to set up an aquarium for the classroom, which underlined both the emphasis on Nature Study we had found in the teacher education curriculum at ATC and the history of systemic under-resourcing of rural schools. And the hilarious description of the School Inspector’s visit rang wonderfully true. But there was no ‘evidence’ my researcher’s eye could find there of Jessica’s embodied classroom practice – of the morning routines; the teaching of reading; the grouping of children; how she taught grammar, or sewing, or singing. 

Instead of the sort of detail I was hoping to find, though, I did see something else: there were rich descriptions of the life of this rural schoolteacher as she interacted with the range of people in the community.  I remember being particularly struck by Kylie Tennant’s own Introduction to her novel, written in 1972, where she looked back on both the text and herself as author, and where she named and detailed the “atrocious towns and their inhabitants” on which she had based this story.

We quoted her in the “Speak softly” paper, in fact. And now, in 2022, I can see clear traces back to Tennant’s depiction of the teacher’s life in Tiburon as highlighting the importance of what we would later come to call “rural social space” (Reid et al., 2010) – something that teachers need to understand as different for every country town, if they are to be prepared for rural teaching.

I admit that in 2022 I once again searched for this book on the basis of an ‘assignment’ – this time spurred by [AWWC co-editor] Bill Holloway’s interest in Australian women writers.  And I have to say that Tiburon was hard to find – no copy in our local library, although the University found one via interlibrary loan (due date 27 JUN 1995), and I have since been able to purchase one online. 

It is, I must say, well worth (re-)reading, and well worth buying a copy if you are that way inclined.  Since its original publication in The Bulletin in 1935, it has been reprinted at least five times that I can find: in hardback that same year by Currawong Press, and since then in 1972, 1981, 1988, and 2013 by Angus and Robertson, the last with an electronic version too.

My task this time was to read it again, twenty years later, and see if I thought I had something worth sharing to say about it.  Well, anyone still reading will be the judge of that, but I definitely have a couple of things I want to say as a reader now in my late sixties: both about the novel itself, and about re-reading it.

Firstly, I am literally stunned by the author’s capacity and insight at such a young age.  As I noted above, Kylie Tennant wrote the Introduction to the 1972 edition of the novel, forty years after she had written it. This Introduction is, in itself, a wonderful read.  Noting that “the author of Tiburon was very young”, she explains – herself sixty by this time – that it is probably “hopeless to ask a young author to have compassion”. It is such a wonderful passage, that with a short piece from a little further into this Introduction, I will share it here:

Compassion was, indeed, a scarce commodity in the thirties, vanishing underground with the stream of money and leaving us with dry eroded faces, cracked into grim lines, a desperate humour to defend us from grief. We were told we were part of a social problem when all we could see was that there was no work and no money. We were ashamed of being a social problem, and indignation replaced compassion as whisky replaces water; raw and good for you in violence if you want to fight.


Coming from the city at the age of twenty the author of Tiburon fell in love with the Australian country, its wildness and gentleness and character. Only the country could have made tolerable, at first, the atrocious towns and their inhabitants. The townspeople were frightened of what other people thought, were apathetic to ideas, were as timid as a huddle of ducks. I am afraid the author of Tiburon dealt with them the more harshly because she had had to struggle out of just such an environment as contented them, a respectability that was a malnutrition of the spirit.

Kylie Tennant was a committed socialist, just married and only twenty in 1933, when she moved with her teacher husband to live in western NSW – first in Coonabarabran and then from 1934-1936, in Canowindra.  She wrote Tiburon there, her first novel, while living at the Canowindra Hotel.  In my twenties I also thought myself a socialist, and a bit ‘literary’, as an English teacher. But I had been born in the fifties, into a post-war nuclear family bent on escaping its own unhappy childhood histories of growing up during the Depression.  My family bought into the boom of new land on the edge of my country town. We built a weatherboard house with a big back yard and a new Hills Hoist, on which our washing was always pegged carefully with the sheets on the outside, saving us from the judgement of the neighbours. Unlike Kylie Tennant, and unlike my parents, I had not witnessed a working class left without work. My grandmother had turned twenty in 1930, and as the Depression worsened over the decade, my grandfather had been forced to ‘go on the track’ to find work, leaving her and their children alone in a rented house to fend for themselves.  Their marriage did not survive this, but the pride of keeping up appearances for the outside world did.

Never having experienced this sort of poverty, or fear, my imagination as a twenty-year-old had been nurtured by free school milk, the Wyndham scheme, a commonwealth scholarship for university, and the promise of a guaranteed job for life.  It is all just luck, I kept thinking, as I re-read Tennant’s acerbic laceration of the citizens of Tiburon.  These were people who had never experienced the malnutrition of the body and heart that I was also finding in Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, my audio companion at the time. Unlike Stuart, though, the young Kylie Tennant had equal disdain for those whose minds were also undernourished.  Commentary has praised Tennant’s “genially inquiring eye and wry grin”, her “laconic, poetic prose of great realistic warmth”, yet this time I felt that the only truly sympathetic portrayal is of the bookish Paul White, Jessica’s one true friend in the community, her intellectual equal, who she chooses to leave on ‘the other side of the track’ when she returns to city life after her year in the bush. 

Douglas Stuart was born twenty years after me, and sixty years after Kylie Tennant:  but his family did share a life very similar to Tennant’s experience. Even as an older writer, though, he still shows little compassion for the mean of spirit – capturing exactly this malnutrition amongst the post-industrial mining communities of 1980s Glasgow.  His depiction of the lost potential of the families of the non-working-class is less pointed, more nuanced, however, and I found it all the more devastating because of that. 

Like Douglas Stuart, too, Kylie Tennant won a prize for her writing in Tiburon. Although she claims modestly that it was “probably that the judges […] remarked on the strain in it curiously reminiscent of the Lawson of the 1890s”, her writing is extraordinarily acute, and, like Stuart, her ear for spoken language is outstanding. 

My second reading has made me wish even more that she had described the teaching and learning exchanges in Jessica Daunt’s classroom, as I would have heard so much of value about schoolrooms of the time.

There is one last thing that struck me in this reading, twenty years after the first.  And that is the huge degree of social change we have experienced in Australia since this time. In Tiburon, this is notable particularly around the representation of Aboriginal people.  Children in both Coonabarabran, which was settled and built on Gamilaraay country, and Canowindra, which is on Wiradjuri land, are members of families who have lived there for hundreds of generations, and history suggests that Kylie Tennant has captured their position in the rural social space of these towns extremely well in her depiction of the Willoughby family. It is a further testimony to the skill of the author that this section, which provides a huge amount of information in just a few pages (pp. 311-317), is woven so seamlessly into the larger story … peripheral in its placing to the mainstream narrative of the relationships of the town, just like the local Aboriginal people would have been.

The more I think about the book, the more impressed I am by the achievement of this clear-eyed, hard-nosed, clever, and extraordinarily talented writer.  I am lucky indeed to have had this chance to revisit Kylie Tennant’s work, and I wonder what changes in me, in the bush, and in society it might presage if I have the chance to read it again, in another twenty years.


James, B. (1950). The Advancement of Spencer Button. Sydney, Angus & Robertson.
Reid, J., & Martin, S. (2003). ‘Speak softly, be tactful, and assist cheerfully’: Women beginning teaching in 1930s NSW. Change: Transformations in Education6(1), 48-69.
Reid, J., Green, B., Cooper, M., Hastings, W., Lock, G., & White, S. (2010). Regenerating rural social space? Teacher education for rural-regional sustainability. Australian Journal of Education54(3), 262-276.
Stuart, D. (2020). Shuggie Bain. London: Pan Macmillan.
Tennant, K. (1972) Tiburon. Sydney, Angus & Robertson.


Jo-Anne Reid, Emeritus Professor Jo-Anne Reid retired from the Faculty of Education at Charles Sturt University in 2018.  She was originally a secondary English teacher WA, and worked as a literacy teacher educator at Murdoch, Deakin, Monash, Ballarat, New England and Charles Sturt – leading to a research agenda and commitment to improving the preparation of teachers for schools in rural and remote locations.