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Book Review: The Little Desert by Colin Thiele

The Little Desert by Colin Thiele and Jocelyn Burt H/C D/J 1975

Book Review: The Little Desert.

Text by Colin Thiele.

Photographs by Jocelyn Burt.

Published by Rigby Limited, Adelaide, 1975.

The Little Desert

This is a region in western Victoria, Australia. It is about midway between Melbourne and Adelaide, being about 350km from either city (about 4 hours travel time). It was in earlier times suggested as an area that needed to be cleared from native vegetation and turned into farming land. In the early 1970s, there was a concerted effort made by conservationists to preserve this unique piece of the Australian landscape. Eventually, it was declared a national park and today it is still one of Australia’s most beautiful places to visit.

Not your typical desert

The area known as the Little Desert is not your typical desert. It only has this title due to the soil type. It is very sandy and lacking in essential nutrients, so it would have been very unsuitable for farming without vast amounts of fertiliser. The ‘desert’ as it has always been, and continues to be, is an area rich in plant life. With over 600 species of plants, it is a magnet for botanists, photographers and nature lovers. It also boasts a rich range of native birds and animal species. Most of the national park is covered in mallee trees. Also present in large numbers are smaller shrubby plants and even a range of beautiful native orchids. In the eastern part of the park, one can see larger eucalypt trees, notably along the Wimmera River which flows through this area.

Poetic prose

Colin Thiele’s beautiful book on this area covers some of the history of the conservation efforts to save this little gem in the Australian landscape. He also describes, in evocative prose, the hidden beauties of this landscape, from the dainty Spider Orchid to the enigmatic Malleefowl, an amazing bird found in the park tending to its enormous nesting mound of sand and rotting vegetation which acts as an incubator to hatch their eggs. Much of  Thiele’s prose is closer to poetry, and it is no surprise that he is also known as one of Australia’s leading poets. I will review one of his collections of poetry in a few day’s time.

Photography

Thiele’s wonderful prose is accompanied by equally wonderful photographs by Jocelyn Burt. She has provided photos for several of his other books. The photos cover the flowers and other botanical marvels, as well as some of the many species of birds resident in this area. Every double-page spread in this volume has a photo on the right with Thiele’s text on the left; each one complements the other.

My visits to the desert

Even though this beautiful part of Australia is only a few hour’s drive from my home, it saddens me to write that I can only ever recall visiting the Little Desert on three occasions, once to camp in our old tent, now decommissioned due to a leaking roof, and the other times were fleeting half-day visits. I must correct that oversight soon.

Further reading:

 

Book review: The Valley Between

THIELE The Valley Between HC

Book Review: The Valley Between by Colin Thiele, published by Rigby Publishing in 1981.

Biography

Last week I reviewed the official biography of Colin Thiele. You can read that review here. I found this biography to be very interesting and quite inspirational. Thiele was a prolific writer despite also being a full-time teacher and a much-in-demand public speaker. In his day, he was a much-loved author, particularly regarding his works for children of all ages. His new books were always eagerly awaited and sold out quickly. I believe that his writing is still held in high regard, though many younger readers have probably not heard of him. Even younger teachers may not be aware of the huge contribution Thiele made to Australian literature.

Inspired

After reading his biography, I was inspired to reread some of his works. I have a few in my own library, but for some titles, I had to go to my local public library. Not all of his books are available here locally, so I am grateful for the provision of interlibrary loans. (We have access to all the books held in public and some school libraries throughout our state of South Australia.)

The Valley Between

One of the books I choose to read was The Valley Between a novel for children set in the mid-north of South Australia in the 1930s. The valley in the title refers to the Barossa Valley about an hour’s drive north of Adelaide. This is a world famous wine region. Thiele grew up a short distance north of this valley. He was born in 1920 and so this book very much reflects his boyhood experiences and exploits. It would be interesting to know how much is from personal experience, and how much is from his very fertile imagination. This story roughly continues from his earlier and better-known novel, The Sun on the StubbleBoth were later adapted into a television series. Probably his best-known work is Storm Boy which later became a very popular film of the same name. A remake of the film is under way this year (2017).

Vignettes

The narrative of The Valley Between is mostly in short vignettes of the happenings in the life of the protagonist, Benno Schulz. Each chapter is an episode in itself, but the over-arching storyline follows Benno’s first experiences after leaving primary school. In those days, many children did not go on to secondary or tertiary education.

While each chapter can be read in isolation just like a short story, several characters appear in each episode, intersecting with the life of Benno as he grows up on a farm near the imaginary town of Gonunda. The town is quite clearly reflective of the town of Eudunda where Thiele grew up. There is a statue of Thiele in a park of the town.

German influences

Many of the characters in the story are descendants of the German settlers who came to South Australia in the 1800s. Thiele uses their distinct dialect, a mixture of English, German and mash-ups of both languages to great effect. He has even included a glossary of German words at the back. I, too, have the same heritage, so the language is easy for me to read. Contemporary readers may struggle a little until they get used to it. This is a small price to pay for reading this delightful story. Many incidents are laugh out loud moments as Benno gets into all kinds of adventures, both deliberate and inadvertent.

Descriptions

Colin Thiele is known for his rich descriptions of the environment in which his stories are based. His words sing with metaphors and similes which bring his settings to life. His wonderful characters come to life through his words and their sometimes bizarre actions and attitudes. While I have said that this book is somewhat episodic in structure, the narrative carries the reader on to the satisfying conclusion.

When I first came across this title in a list of his works, I thought that I had missed reading this title. On getting about half way through, I realised that I had read it, albeit several decades ago, possibly when it was first published. It is well worth tracking down a copy to read.

Further reading:

Colin Thiele

Review: Can I Call You Colin?

CAN-I-CALL-YOU-COLIN-BIOGRAPHY-OF-COLIN-THIELE-by-STEPHANY-EVANS-STEGGALL

Can I Call You Colin? The authorised Biography of Colin Thiele

Written by Stephany Evans Steggall

Published in 2004 by New Holland Publishers (Australia)

 

I regret only ever having met Colin Thiele once in my life. I would love to have met him many more times than that but our paths only crossed on that one occasion. I would love to have met him many more times than that but our paths only crossed on that one occasion. I would love to have chatted with him about books, writing, literature, children, teaching, the environment and so many other topics. It was not meant to be.

Published books

All through my teaching career (1969 – 2004), I read many of his children’s books to my classes over those years. He was a prolific writer and published well over 60 titles for children; many more if the various multiple editions are counted. In addition to his children’s works, he published dozens of fiction and non-fiction titles for both children and adults. He contributed articles and stories to many magazines, journals and anthologies, and his unpublished speeches and talks would fill many more volumes. He wrote many radio scripts for ABC Radio here in Australia. He was also a prolific poet, publishing six volumes of poetry in addition to several volumes of children’s poetry. And all this prolific writing was done part-time while holding down a full-time teaching position. What an amazing man.

Highly regarded

Through his works, I thought I knew him quite well. This biography, however, has fully rounded out my knowledge of one of Australia’s most highly regarded writers and educators. This is a brilliant work and pays homage to a great South Australian, one who is held in such high regard here and abroad. The author of this work has researched her topic well, interviewing not only Thiele and his immediate family, but also many of his friends, colleagues, publishers, editors and hosts of others. Even some of his admiring fans are quoted, because hundreds, if not thousands of children wrote to him during his life.

Lifestory

The author covers every aspect of Thiele’s life, from his childhood growing up on a farm in the Eudunda district of South Australia, to his time at university in Adelaide through to his war-time experiences in the 1940s. His early teaching career is well portrayed, along with his venture into married life and parenthood. Later he was an inspiration to many hundreds of young people training to be teachers.

Thiele struggled throughout much of his life between to demands of his chosen profession, and the passion he felt to always be writing. This biography shows the strength of character of Thiele in all his dealings, whether that concern was for students, family members, colleagues, editors or readers.

Challenges

Despite the challenge of an overpowering workload due to his profession, his writing and his family, Colin had one other debilitating challenge to cope with throughout much of his life, He suffered constant pain due to rheumatoid arthritis. As a result, he also endured many operations, but these never seemed to slow him down. Many times he set up his hospital room as a fully functioning office so the work could continue.

Inspiration

This biography has also inspired me to revisit many of Thiele’s classic novels for children, as well as some of his non-fiction works and especially his poetry. Tracking down some of his poetry titles has proved difficult; thank goodness for inter-library loans!

Serendipity

The inspiration to read this biography has come through a serendipitous twist: the author Stephany Evans Steggall has recently become my daughter’s neighbour while they are both teaching at Bingham Academy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

In another serendipitous twist, I share the same birthday with Colin.

Vale, Colin

Sadly, Colin passed away in 2006. His much-loved books for children include Storm Boy, Blue Fin and Fire in the Stone, all of which have been made into popular movies. Another favourite is Sun on the Stubble which was made into a television series. His stories continue to live on, love by each passing generation of children and adults alike. Only recently it was announced that a remake of Storm Boy is being filmed this year.

Related reading:

Review of Morton’s Anglish Fictionary

Morton's Anglish Fictionary; Fierst Endition by Morton Benning

Review: 

Morton Benning – Morton’s Anglish Fictionary: Fierst Endition (2016)

It is the sign of a good book when one laughs out loud. I laughed when reading this book, almost on every page and many times on some pages.

It is even better if, when I read out a portion to my wife, she laughs out loud too. Or groans – with a roll of the eyes.

A winner

Morton Benning has a winner here with hundreds of neologisms, invented words made by changing one or two letters, all with their own improbable, but highly entertaining, daffynition.

Over several years I have seen portions of this amazing volume develop as the author tried out the words and meanings by testing new words on his Facebook friends, also known as contrefutors, many of them adding extras of their own, or modifying suggestions.

Entertainment

While I admit that I read right through the book from cover to cover when I received it, and it can be read like that, I think it is best read by dipping into various pages at random. In this way, it is sure to entertain the reader for many years.

A downside

I notice that the author has called this the Fierst Endition (read the book for daffynitions of those words). I do hope there is not only a seconnd endition, but a theard and more. There is one downside of this work. By the time I was only half way through reading, I was seriously questioning my ability to spell even basic words. Sigh.

Such phun.

Grab yourself a copy from here. You won’t regret it.

Here are a few tasty morsels:

  • pratzel: an annoying idiot twisted in a knot and baked
  • velcrow: a raven that sticks around
  • shenannygans: grandmothers behaving badly
  • articulatte: to communicate clearly about, or because of, coffee

A retelling of MacDonald’s Phantastes

Phantastes

George MacDonald’s classic fantasy novel as retold by Mark Worthing.

Stone Table Books, 2016.

phantastes-cover

Some of my readers may well ask, “George who?” Fortunately, I was aware of who George MacDonald was before I was handed a copy of this book for review. MacDonald’s works usually do not appear on any of those “Best Books of the Week/Month/Year/Century.” His works were first published in the mid-1800s, so there is no surprise to realise that they are not on everyone’s To Read list.

Mark Worthing, the author of this retelling, gives a short introduction to George MacDonald at the beginning of the book. I will give an even shorter introduction. MacDonald’s novel Phantastes was first published in 1858 and is widely regarded as the first modern fantasy novel to be written in English. MacDonald was a Congregational minister, but he did not last long in this role because his theology was at odds with those who employed him. Although he continued in occasional preaching, his main income was derived from his many writings, though he was never really well off.

MacDonald’s contribution to fantasy

Readers should not be put off by MacDonald’s work, especially this title. Many great writers of fantasy have paid tribute to MacDonald for inspiring them to also write fantasy. These include J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula LeGuin, Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens, among others.  “Madeleine L’Engle, the matriarch of modern Christian fantasy, literature, candidly admits that ‘George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all – all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy.’” (Worthing, Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God, p.26)

The full title of the novel is Phantastes, a Faerie Romance for Men and Women. This retelling of the original is just called Phantastes. In order to review this reworking of the novel, I felt I should at least attempt to read a part of the original story.

Trepidation

I came with a little trepidation to the original, mindful of the irony of reading it on an eReader – a work first published nearly 160 years ago. I should not have worried. I took to it easily and read right through over only several days. While I found the language somewhat stilted and archaic to my modern ears, I found it relatively easy to read and follow the plot. I had a similar experience several years ago when I read right through Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. The many unfamiliar words MacDonald uses were easily located directly from the inbuilt dictionary in eReader. This made understanding the novel so much easier.

Worthing’s modern-day retelling was next on my reading list. Already being familiar with the general gist of the story I breezed through this new work. It is a very enjoyable story which will reward the reader on many levels. At its most basic, one could regard it as a simple quest story. The protagonist, Anodos, is also the narrator of the tale. It is his search for adventure, beauty and love which drives him to explore the Land of Faerie. Many of the classic characters we come to expect in fairy tales are encountered along the journey; fairies of course, goblins, ogres, monsters, dragons, giants, witches, kings, knights, princesses and many more.

Anodos faces many hardships, adventures, narrow escapes and puzzles in his quest to meet the Faerie Queen. Along the way he not only discovers that he has part fairy blood, he also explores what true love is, the many forms of beauty, the power of song and music, and what it takes to be truly brave and sacrificially selfless. Worthing has added a satisfying and romantic ending to the original tale, an ending which is implied but not stated in the MacDonald version.

Voice

Before commencing to write this retelling of Phantastes, Worthing realised that many present-day readers struggle with reading MacDonald’s version. He says in the introduction, “When I taught a tertiary level course some years ago on the history of fantasy literature, MacDonald and his novel Phantastes featured prominently. I managed to persuade several students over successive offerings of the course to attempt to read the book. Invariably they came back to me some weeks or months later, admitting defeat.” (p.8) It was this difficulty that was the inspiration for this retelling. The author was determined to keep true to the voice and style of the original, while modernising the language used. I believe that he has been very successful in this aim. The retelling is an easy read, while still capturing the voice of MacDonald. I am familiar with Worthing’s unique style and voice, and he has managed to suppress this in a retelling which beautifully reflects the intentions of the original.

Poetry

MacDonald included many beautiful passages of poetry which are called songs in the original, some of them many pages long. Some of these can be difficult to read and follow, mainly due to the archaic language used. Worthing has incorporated many of them, many in edited form and some in a much-shortened form. I think he has retained the essence of the original songs, while allowing greater enjoyment and understanding by making the language far more accessible. I should add that this is a general first impression, not as a result of a line by line analysis.

Stories within the novel

MacDonald included a number of short stories within the novel. Chapter 13 includes the story of Cosmo and this is the longest of them. While at first glance this appears to have little bearing on the main plot, an understanding of this tale is essential to the story arc. It is a vital turning point of the story and the concentric nature of the whole work. Worthing has retained a shortened version of Cosmo’s story, and in one of the appendices he has explained the importance of this to the structure of the novel (p. 168 – 171).

 Conclusion

There is ample evidence for the outstanding contribution of George MacDonald to the genre we know as fantasy today. His legacy is immense, but his works have largely been ignored by contemporary readers. This is a shame, for he evidently has much to offer, as this retelling bears testimony.

I thoroughly recommend this new version.

Details of the launch, and where to buy this book, can be found here.

Acknowledgment: special thanks to author Mark Worthing for supplying a review copy of his book.