The book begins with an introduction by Dymphna Cusack, who explains how the book came about. She and Florence James were working on their collaborative work, Come In Spinner, but were both physically exhausted from their experiences of World War II. They employed Caddie as domestic worker, and were entertained by Caddie's turn of phrase and stories of being a barmaid during the Depression. Caddie initially took the job in the hope that the authors would write her story. With their encouragement and coaching, Caddie wrote numerous drafts of the story herself instead.
The book tells the story of Caddie, starting with her birth in Penrith, NSW in 1900 to a family living in poverty. They move to railway camps at Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains where her father works as a railway fettler. His abuse becomes worse when her mother dies in childbirth and her brother is killed at the Gallipoli landing. To escape her family, she moves to Sydney to work as a shop assistant with her friend, Esther, while still a young woman. She meets and marries a middle class man, John Marsh, and has two children by him. She feels constrained by the control taken by her mother in law, living next door, who treats her as undeserving of her son, as Caddie is not "pure merino" (ie with only free settler, not convict, ascendants). Caddie leaves when she uncovers John's sexual relationship with Esther. John and his mother endeavour to retain custody of the children, although Caddie believes this is really only to spite her.
Caddie moves to the first available cheap accommodation, only to find that it is predominantly used as a brothel. Caddie finds better paid work as a barmaid, a morally suspect position- her first employer tells her to shorten her dress, for example, because "she was an artwork, and he liked his artwork on display." She places her children in the care of a Church- run home, having tried leaving them with carers who mistreated and neglected them. She visits weekly, often with her barmaid friend, Leslie. When the Depression hits, tips are less common and both women's incomes drop dramatically. Through Leslie, Caddie meets a Greek immigrant and business owner, Peter, with whom she establishes a loving relationship, with Peter buying gifts for weekend visits with Caddie's children. Caddie and Peter are distressed when Peter's estranged wife and ill father call him back to Greece to run the family business. The couple corresponds, with Peter reporting that his attempts to divorce his wife have been unsuccessful.
With the effects of the Depression deepening, Caddie takes additional work by running tabs for the pub's SP bookmaker. She takes back custody of her children and rents a house, furnishing it with fruit cases for chairs. She befriends Bill "the Rabbittoh" (rabbit seller), Sonny his brother and their parents, and Bill helps her sign up for the dole (sustenance food provisions meant for those without income). Caddie saves some money when she starts running the SP books herself, the bookmaker having moved on to legal bookmaking at the racecourse. Caddie decides to leave the city, having been offered work on a farm. She moves house to share with rabbittoh for a week to save rent before moving to mountains for other work, but remains there when the work offer is withdrawn. She emotionally supports, and is supported by, Bill's family, including caring for his elderly father before his death. Around this time, Peter's wife dies, and Peter asks Caddie to migrate. Caddie feels unable to do this, but Peter is tied to Greece to keep the business alive.
The story ends in tragedy when Peter returns, following the death of his wife, and the couple is finally able to make plans to marry. When he buys a new car, he takes the whole family driving and dies in a tragic car crash when swerving to avoid collision with a truck, only four days before their planned wedding.
Caddie makes a chance reacquaintance with Esther, who has been deserted by John, and has contracted Tuberculosis. Against her wishes, Caddie's son enlists at the outbreak of World War II. Bill and Sonny go "on the wallaby track", searching remote areas for subsistence work.
The book documents one woman's version of her experiences of the Great Depression, highlighting her battle to maintain her respectability while ensuring she can support her children.
At the time, Australian bars were segregated on gender lines, so the barmaid was the only female present in the main bar. As a result, barmaids had a bad name because a woman working in such conditions was regarded as morally suspect, perhaps luring men into spending their money in bars, perhaps soliciting commercial sex. Indeed, Caddie makes reference to the numerous sexual advances made towards her, both in her role as barmaid and in situations where it would benefit her, such as from the teacher at her children's school. She shows how she remained morally respectable in this regard, and shows how her other illegal activities- SP bookmaking, signing up for multiple welfare payments- were for the benefit of her family and friends.
The story makes reference to the six o'clock swill, written at a time shortly after the war when it was presumed that the reader would be familiar with the phenomenon. In an effort to minimise alcohol consumption, the Australian government legislated that bars were to close at 6pm. The result was an extreme rush between 5pm and 6pm.
Cusack notes how Caddie was reluctant to give any signs of complaint, but to take everything in her stride in order to meet the needs of her children. Cusack had Caddie rewrite the book several times in order to give more detail of the difficulties she faced and her feelings about them. The stoic strength of an Australian single woman "battler" is an underlying theme to the story.
This adaptation removes Caddie's early life story, suggesting she was from a middle class background, as well as a number of other minor adjustments to the storyline.