This biographical study of Colin Thiele (1920 - ) traces the events and achievements of a long and productive life. While most Australians identify his name with Storm Boy, a book written for children and first published in 1963, Thiele has made significant contributions to Australian literature in various genres. The citation for the centenary medal, the latest of many awards made to him, reads: "For distinguished service to the arts as a poet and novelist". Thiele is also recognised as an educator and his long list of credits in this field includes Fellow of the Australian College of Education.
While the writing of this biography presents problems common to most life stories, writing about Thiele has revealed problems specific to him. The Introduction enumerates these problems and the chapters that follow explore each problem by asking specific questions about the era of Thiele's life under discussion. These questions are intended also to define the life in terms of structuring principles or shaping devices available to the biographer who must come to terms with a vast amount of material. To provide a background and to position the contents, each chapter is then given narrative scope, chronologically assessing life and times and works. At the end of the chapter, an analysis is made of the content as a means of answering the question/s posed at the outset about this life.
In Chapter One, the question is asked about the influence that a German background, composed of both a genetic and cultural heritage, has had on Thiele. The early concerns that shaped Thiele beyond boyhood are identified as the German factors, particularly the part played by language, land husbandry and a strict work ethic; the sense of belonging and putting down roots in a small community dominated by farm, church and school; and the solitude and freedom of an isolated place with scattered farms and few people. Attention is drawn to the external pressures, most significantly the Great Depression, which intruded upon childhood and forced change. Thiele is seen in the context of a generational change that occurred as a result of the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Chapter Two examines Thiele's experience as a student at the University of Adelaide from which he emerged as a successful graduate, a confident teacher and a serious poet. Three significant influences were at work in the years between 1937 and 1942: Immanuel College and Seminary in North Adelaide, the environment of the University of Adelaide, and the contact with a group of poets. The dual concerns of a lifetime - author and educator - began with enrolment in a Bachelor of Arts course. His identification with the South Australian literary community established by the Jundyworobaks and Angry Penguins provides one approach to his work: how important was it in shaping Thiele's writing life? His association with the groups in Adelaide gave him a foothold in Australian literature and while he was destined to be a journeyman, he has made a worthwhile contribution, which began with publication in the Jindyworobak Anthology, Angry Penguins and Poetry.
Chapter Three stresses Thiele's two lifetime commitments begun during the war: a serious writer and a suitor to Rhonda Gill. It also enlarges on the importance of the literary movement in Thiele's life, peripheral to the war experience that impacted most decisively on Thiele as he grappled with the familiar lament of separation and change. How did the war shape his future life? Was his love for Gill spurred on by the emotional pressures and needs of war service or would there have been the same outcome if the relationship had developed in ordinary life? He has said that he was "very lucky" in the three concerns of that time: war service, writing and marriage. The poetry written in these years confronted change, in the same way that the fiction written about childhood challenged the feelings of leaving something important behind and facing the unknown. In particular. Progress to Denial, Thiele's first published book (1945), is about the progression of personal change and growth as an outcome of war.
Chapter Four considers the extent to which Thiele's writing has been moulded by his profession of secondary teaching. The career in education, coupled with the part-time writing, is seen to be the main structuring principle in Thiele's life. The chapter traces the career between 1945 and 1955 and puts it in the extended picture of his writing, particularly for ABC radio; his ongoing correspondence and connections with other writers; and his changing role in the context of family life. The ten years at Port Lincoln were formative for Thiele, author and educator. His early recognition of the compatibility of teaching and writing enabled him to work successfully at combining both in the twenty years ahead.
A difficult question in Thiele's life is addressed in Chapter Five. How did he lead such a productive life while he was in so much pain? From the 1950s, Thiele has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. Despite its severity, he seemed determined to advance rapidly in his career as educator and he continued to work full--time until his retirement in 1980. The assessment made is that Thiele was driven by a desire to achieve perfection in whatever he did. The arthritis has been an imperfection, a frustrating and inhibiting force in his life that he has sought to deny or minimise. He persisted with writing and the public's recognition of him as author as well as educator was secured with The Sun on the Stubble (1961), which is examined also in this chapter.
Chapter Six is concerned with Thiele at mid-life, in his forties. What view did he have of himself at this stage of his life? What did he hope to achieve? The success of Storm Boy, following that of The Sun on the Stubble, gave him entree to the children's book world and he would continue to write in this genre for another forty years. His work was sought after and he had a sense of his own identity as a writer in Adelaide Writers' Week, a national event in which he was active and respected. This is the stage at which he was stretching his writing capabilities, continuing to write poetry and the biography of Hans Heysen. This book, Heysen of Hahndorf, provides a useful companion piece to Thiele's own life. He was writing variously and successfully, and he linked it with his career as an educator, which reached its peak at this time.
Thiele's long-term engagement with education as secondary teacher, tertiary lecturer and Principal - thirty-five years - is a fundamental structuring principle for a life in which the professions of writer and teacher were integral one to the other. He was an excellent communicator and well-liked as teacher and administrator. Chapter Seven questions the real significance or worth of the contribution that he made to education in South Australia. Three claims are made: his undisputed talent as a teacher was an "inspirational" example to hundreds of teacher trainees and he was able to put it to use in his quest for wider recognition of, and respect for, Australian literature; as an administrator he was innovative and ambitious for the advancement and status of teachers; and he successfully guided the Wattle Park Teachers' College, an increasingly large institution, through the major changes that occurred in teacher education during the 1960s and 1970s. This was the era when there were significant changes at both regional and national levels in the broader context of the Australian education sector. The association of Thiele's writing with a very earnest impulse to teach and promote education is supremely important.
Chapter Eight continues with the issue of pedagogy and authorship from the previous chapter. What significance can be placed on the claim to duality? Is the self-image of committed author/educator sincere and credible? A speaker of some repute, Thiele had many occasions to impress his purpose on others. His writing for children and adults in the 1970s occurred at a time of interest and growth in Australian writing. Thiele took every opportunity offered, but all the evidence points to sincerity of purpose -to teach and to write as a joint venture - and pleasure in the work at hand. Labourers in the Vineyard, Thiele's first published novel for adults, was not a successful book, and the writer who had hoped to make a breakthrough with this genre was disappointed, but the book is useful in understanding his early identity in a largely German community.
In 1980, Thiele retired from the Education Department in South Australia although he continued to visit schools all over Australia and he has never retired from writing. The questions in Chapter Nine are concerned with the longevity of his career as a writer. Firstly, what was the source of that energy necessary for constant output? Was it simply a compulsive writer's energy, or a perceived ethical obligation to continue to have something worthwhile to say, or was it the educator's mindset that must insistently teach? Secondly, was he making new statements or merely going over old ground? These questions are answered by examining further Thiele's writing practices and principles, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of his books and placing these many titles in the context of readers' responses, editorial changes, writing opportunities and personal concerns in the 1980s and 1990s. Of all the writing in this era, Thiele's non-fiction for adults stands out as durable, particularly With Dew on My Boots: A Childhood Revisited. This book tells his own childhood story in the historical setting of the times and offers a useful companion piece to the corpus of his fictional writing about those times. Coming late in his writing, it is a cornerstone to an understanding of the factors that have shaped his life.
After examining Thiele's German heritage, the problem of pain, the dilemma of assessing a very likable man about whom so little negative can be said fairly, the endless data of a big life, I am led to the conclusion that the author/educator theme is predominant: someone serious, committed and respected in his teaching which extended to his writing. The title for the thesis is Colin Thiele: Double Vision. A biographical study of an Australian writer and educator. The duality and the sense of mission or vocation over such a long time set him apart.