The flyer for the Brisbane launch of this new biography of Australia’s most popular living poet described Stephany Evans Steggall and Bruce Dawe as ‘joint authors’, and while the title page lists Evans Steggall alone as its author, there is a sense in which the poet is indeed co-author of this collaborative account of his life. The title comes from one of his best-known poems, and the chapters take their titles from the poems with which they begin. Evans Steggall has also reordered poems written over many decades into a chronological sequence that enables the poet himself to tell much of his life story. She has added to this her own complementary account of that life, in which she has been assisted by the poet who, instead of writing his autobiography, has chosen to collaborate with his biographer. Such a venture has its constraints, which are increased when the subject is involved in the writing, but it also offers opportunities that the objectifying passage of time removes. In this case, the collaboration has produced an intimately personal account of a notable life viewed sympathetically and through the poet’s own eyes.
Mention Colin Thiele’s name, and at least one listener will sigh and say The Sun on the Stubble in a wistful or regretful voice, depending on their schooldays memories. This biography takes us on ngrugie ngoppun: a ‘good walk’ with its subject. Largely chronological, it begins with a glimpse of the writer poised to tell his enduring story of the Coorong, Storm Boy (1963), and then retraces his long life and career (Thiele was born in 1920). His idyllic boyhood in the bosom of a loving farm community, his academic studies as a young adult, his RAAF service and his long distinguished teaching career are all laid out, leading to his subsequent fame as a part-time writer.
Thiele has been a prolific and versatile writer for over sixty years. He has written poetry, short stories, plays, biography, textbooks and novels, while working full-time as a teacher and then principal of Wattle Park Teachers’ College. He is best known for his novels about his beloved South Australia, in particular those set in fictitious settlements in the Barossa Valley: The Sun on the Stubble (1961), Uncle Gustav’s Ghosts (1974) and Labourers in the Vineyard (1970), among others. Storm Boy is widely acknowledged to be his best-loved story for children. Some of his short stories for young readers are small gems: Danny’s Egg (1989) could easily fit into the ‘Aussie Nibbles’ series. He has published a biography of Hans Heysen (Heysen of Hahndorf, 1968), and his own memoir of childhood, With Dew on My Boots (1997). He published poetry in the notorious Ern Malley issue of Angry Penguins, and had radio plays broadcast while still a young teacher. His work has been adapted for cinema and television. Considering his long life, too few photographs are included, but a note directs the reader to a website for more. There are more than thirty pages of notes and bibliography, and an extensive index.