by Bronwyn

The Battlers (1941), also called “The Brown Van” whilst still in manuscript form, was Kylie Tennant’s third novel, rounding out what some critics at the time deemed to be her Depression era trilogy.

Tiburon (1935) was a story about rural poverty, while Foveaux (1939) was the story of inner-city slums. The Battlers was a return to the bush, this time for the point of view of the itinerant unemployed, those who had to be near a major town every Thursday as “Thursday all over the West is dole day, when the trackmen come in to have their cards stamped at the police-station and get their rations to carry them to the next ‘dole town’.

Rather like a method actor, Tennant immersed herself in the life of her characters-to-be and knew these places and this life through personal experience.

While at the University of Sydney studying for an arts degree in 1931 she met and fell in love with Lewis Rodd. The following year, when he took up a teaching position in Coonabarabran in Central West, NSW, Tennant decided to walk the 450km to Coonabarabran to be with him. Along the way she “witnessed the hardship and suffering of the rural unemployed.” This walk and subsequent longer tramps formed the basis of both Tiburon and The Battlers. For Foveaux she lived for several months in dilapidated boarding houses in Surrey Hills and Redfern.

These experiences not only gave her novels a strong sense of place and realism, but also developed in her an enduring concern for social justice issues. It is often easy for us to look back to this time and make excuses for the way people were treated back then as “being of their time”. Yet clearly, not everyone felt this way.

In 1940 the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize (run by the Bulletin) awarded the prize to three contenders – Kylie Tennant for The Battlers, Eve Langley for The Pea-Pickers, and Malcolm Henry Ellis for the John Murtagh Macrossan lectures on Governor Macquarie. The judges of the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize clearly valued social realism and the female perspective in at least two of their choices for this year (although Ellis’ inclusion is a little more “of its time” given he was not only a member of the Bulletin staff but a staunch conservative as well).

Tennant was also awarded this prize five years earlier for her first novel. Clearly there were literary judges, writers and members of the reading public at this time who valued and fought for social justice issues, believing we could AND should treat those down on their luck better because it was the right and fair thing to do.

The Battlers is the story of Snow, a loner who wanders the stock routes looking for work. His family are at home in a small rural township near Condobolin where his wife grew up. He sends money home when he can. It’s the middle of June, cold and dry with very little chance of food or work, so he is heading reluctantly towards home. A chance encounter near Bylong has him meeting up with a young woman, Dancy Smith the Stray fleeing the slums of Sydney, Duke the busker and the rather eccentric older woman, Mrs Dora Phipps. Together they form an unusual band of outcasts.

Although it is Snow’s story to begin with, by the end Tennant has given the reins to Dancy.

And that’s where this book becomes very interesting. For along with Eve Langley’s The Pea Pickers, Tennant shows us how the women and children fared whilst living an itinerant life. Langley proved that many women desired to live a more adventurous, travelling lifestyle and wanted to work the same jobs as men. However, Tennant showed the downside – when women and children had to resort to this lifestyle due to poverty and homelessness. It was not an easy life at all and far from the romantic Bush Legend often found in literature at this time. There was domestic violence, absent husbands, drunk husbands, grinding poverty and making do. There was no union that would protect them; they had no rights. They only got the worst jobs, for the worst pay and conditions and there was very little they could do about it.

Dancy first appears when Snow catches her trying to steal some food. “Its hair hung in bedraggled wisps through which the eyes stared bulging with horror. A toothless mouth gaped at him as the creature panted and stammered. A shapeless mass of ragged clothing covered a body so insignificant that it looked like that of a child”. She was only nineteen but had already lived her life in slums, alleyways and the reformatory. ‘It’s men,’ she said. ‘Everywhere you go they’re runnin’ things. Tryin’ to down you. And women, too. All of ‘em rotten.’

Dancy comes into her own though as she travels.

Life is still tough and rough, but when Snow ends up in hospital and one of his young teenage sons runs away from home to be with his father, Dancy steps in to take care of him until Snow can join them again on the road. She gathers a small community around her, making friends at the various camps, meeting up with them again down the track.

The cover of my edition (Angus & Robertson, 2013) features a purple sprig of Paterson’s Curse. When I first moved to Cowra in the early 1980’s with my family as a teenager, the Paterson’s Curse was in full bloom across the shire, whole paddocks ablaze with a purple mass of colour. Like Dancy I thought it was rather beautiful and disappointed to learn that it was nothing but a weed.

Dancy first spots Paterson’s Curse on the hills around Wyangala Dam, near Cowra.

Through the rift in the clouds the sunlight poured down and lit the nearby hills, leaving those behind in the dimness of shadow; and in the flare of that light the hills showed a mass of purple flowers, a carpet of them, a brilliant torrent of flowers, pouring down the side of the road in colours of crimson and blue mauve, violet and opal, opening curious throated bells like snapdragons. They rushed up the far hill, overpowering everything – the paddocks, the pasture, the roadside grass. It was as though the clouds had rained crimson and blue and it mingled in an indelible dye.

Throughout the course of the novel we travel through a number of small towns and large such as Condobolin, Cowra, Woodstock, Wyangala Dam, Bigga, Reid’s Flat, Rugby and Wombat plus a number of fictional places. I created a walking map based on the towns and villages that Snow and Dancy tramped through. It would have taken them 7 days non-stop walking.

When I was in Yr 9 at high school, our enthusiastic new history teacher asked us to interview any older people of our acquaintance who had lived through the Depression. As a shy, reserved 14 year old, this assignment was torture, but I eventually arranged to talk with our elderly neighbours.

They had had a farm on the outskirts of Cowra for most of their lives, only moving into town when they retired. They had very vivid memories of the bagmen and battlers knocking on their door looking for work and handouts during the Depression. They were newlyweds and scraping by themselves, but always shared milk and eggs when they could. I didn’t appreciate their story properly at the time, but my teacher was very excited by one of the stories they had to tell about some kind of lottery, for work or food, sadly I cannot remember the details. He had never heard of it before, and because I knew so little about the Depression I didn’t think to question my neighbours more closely. All I remember now was how embarrassed I was to be singled out in class!

Tennant’s battler’s, battled to make a living, battled against the odds, battled the weather and the environment, they battled authority, each other and government interference, the battled hunger and cold and boredom. They battled against indifference, hostility and loneliness. But like the weed, Paterson’s Curse they learnt how to stick together to help each other, tenaciously holding on even when they weren’t wanted by anyone else.

It’s a plant that’s struck it lucky,’ the Stray said thoughtfully. ‘It hasn’t got no right, but it’s there.’ Just like Dancy and Snow.


Kylie Tennant
The Battlers
first published1941

Biographical information sourced from Kylie Tennant’s page at the Australian Dictionary of Biography and Wikipedia.

Quotes from Bronwyn’s edition of The Battlers (Angus & Robertson, 2013)


Bronwyn has been a book blogger at Brona’s Books since 2009 and a bookseller (specialising in children’s literature) in Sydney since 2008. Prior to this she was an Early Childhood teacher for many years in country NSW. From 2015 until 2020 she was an editor for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. She can also be found at The Classics Club as one of the Gen 2 moderators. From this you can see that the new look AWWC appeals to both of her reading and blogging interests – Australian women writers and the classics.