Monday, November 3, 2014

The Battlers, by Kylie Tennant

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Kylie Tennant's The Battlers doubles as a document of how Australians experienced the Great Depression and a brilliant literary work, reminiscent of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

Australian novelist Kylie Tennant went and lived with unemployed itinerant workers during the Depression. She tramped with them on the road, lived in their camps and experienced the same living conditions. Out of these experiences Tennant fashioned The Battlers (1941). In many ways it’s an extraordinary piece of work, very reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s 1930s novels that dealt with similar subject matter, such as Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The difference is that Tennant injects more humour, warmth and hope into her tale, giving it a Chaucerian humanity.

The story has two main characters at its heart, although the novel roams just like the winding roads it features, with many other characters appearing, disappearing, then reappearing again. Snow is a drifter who has left his wife and children for the road. He is fairly unemotional and non-committal. When he catches a stray, Dancy, trying to rob him, the two strike up an unlikely partnership. Dancy is completely down on her luck. She’s toothless, poor, hungry and clearly malnourished. She’s described as looking 60, even though she’s only 19-years-old. Dancy attaches herself to Snow, even though Snow would clearly like to offload her.

Many others join them along their journey, forming a ramshackle society of misfits and outcasts. This is what gives The Battlers its Chaucerian aspect. Each character has their own story to tell, in their own individual voice. While this group is not on its way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury, as are the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, they are all hoping to find some kind of economic salvation. Some of the more notable characters are the busker, Harley Duke, the comic Miss Phipps, who insists on her airs and graces despite her fallen condition, and the Apostle, a naively religious man who isn’t at all practical.

It’s amazing that Tennant’s The Battlers isn’t better known and more widely read. It doubles as a great document of the times and a brilliant literary work. Tennant sustains a 400 page narrative full of humour, humanity and real life drama. The Battlers is very much a little sister novel to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Can there be greater praise?

The Battlers, by Kylie Tennant. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780732297039 RRP: $14.99

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