The road from Coorain

by Jill K. Conway

Paper Book, 1989




New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1989.


In a memoir that pierces and delights us, Jill Ker Conway tells the story of her astonishing journey into adulthood--a journey that would ultimately span immense distances and encompass worlds, ideas, and ways of life that seem a century apart. She was seven before she ever saw another girl child. At eight, still too small to mount her horse unaided, she was galloping miles, alone, across Coorain, her parents' thirty thousand windswept, drought-haunted acres in the Australian outback, doing a "man's job" of helping herd the sheep because World War II had taken away the able-bodied men. She loved (and makes us see and feel) the vast unpeopled landscape, beautiful and hostile, whose uncertain weathers tormented the sheep ranchers with conflicting promises of riches and inescapable disaster. She adored (and makes us know) her large-visioned father and her strong, radiant mother, who had gone willingly with him into a pioneering life of loneliness and bone-breaking toil, who seemed miraculously to succeed in creating a warmly sheltering home in the harsh outback, and who, upon her husband's sudden death when Jill was ten, began to slide--bereft of the partnership of work and love that had so utterly fulfilled her--into depression and dependency. We see Jill, staggered by the loss of her father, catapulted to what seemed another planet--the suburban Sydney of the 1950s and its crowded, noisy, cliquish school life. Then the heady excitement of the University, but with it a yet more demanding course of lessons--Jill embracing new ideas, new possibilities, while at the same time trying to be mother to her mother and resenting it, escaping into drink, pulling herself back, striking a balance. We see her slowly gaining strength, coming into her own emotionally and intellectually and beginning the joyous love affair that gave wings to her newfound self. Worlds away from Coorain, in America, Jill Conway became a historian and the first woman president of Smith College. Her story of Coorain and the road from Coorain startles by its passion and evocative power, by its understanding of the ways in which a total, deep-rooted commitment to place--or to a dream--can at once liberate and imprison. It is a story of childhood as both Eden and anguish, and of growing up as a journey toward the difficult life of the free.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member BookishDame
One must not live in Wellesley, MA, and fail to read Jill Ker Conway's "The Road from Coorain," or at least that was the way it was in the days when her book was first published! Being a Wellesley girl, myself, it behooved me to read...and I did.

This autobiography of Wellesley College's President
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is a coming of age story about the harsh life of Australian countryside. Resilience, hardscrabble wisdom and a stick-to-itivity are some of the virtues learned in Ms Conway's early years that have bode well in her later years. There's also a profound understanding of women's needs, their ways and their accomplishments that was forged in her early years. Perhaps it was during these years she learned that education was the only stability she could count on as her father's death and her mother's illness left her own life without steady ground.

An accomplished, brilliant woman, Ms Conway earns the respect of all who have the good fortune to know her, and who are guided by her. She understands women and champions their struggles.

This little book in particular has been nominated for and has won various prestigious awards. It's the first of a series of books she has written.

I liked this small, thoughtful little volume. There's alot to be discovered in its pages.

Your Bookish Dame
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LibraryThing member NellieMc
Especially good in the first half of the book, when she describes growing up in an isolated sheep-farm in the middle of Australia. So vivid you can feel the winds, smell the sheep, and agonize over the lack of intellectual/cultural stimulation. A little less involving when she describes the move
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back to the city after her father's death (suicide?) and her striving to make her way as an intellectual in a society with very traditional feminist values. A little too much time spent on her mother, who was very complex and trying, as if the author was trying to figure her out by writing about her. Unfortunately, I found the author (who eventually left for her PhD in American history at Harvard and the presidency of Smith College) far more interesting than her mother and learned less about her. In particular I would have liked to have learned a lot more why, when she so obviously identified herself as an Australian, she made American history her field.
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LibraryThing member brewbooks
I found that I really could comprehend her world growing up as a young woman in Australia in the middle 20th century. Her intellectual growth from a child of the bush to a scholar was very illuminating. Her world view kept changing as she learned (and thought more) about the world. I will have to
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attemprt some of her other work. I highly recoomend this biography.
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LibraryThing member bookheaven
Interesting true story of life in the outback.
LibraryThing member elsyd
Wonderful! This is a memoir/travelogue, that reads like a novel. I was intrigued from beginning to end. John Kenneth Galbraith called this "A small masterpiece", and so it is.
LibraryThing member pjsullivan
How does a child from the Australian outback grow up to become president of a prestigious college in America? This is her story, a candid and realistic memoir of growing up on a sheep station in the middle of nowhere.

The first part of the book is about her down-to-earth life in the bush. Later,
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when she moves to civilization, she ponders the larger world. What was the role of Australia within the British Empire? Was Great Britain a cruel colonial oppressor or a role model to be emulated? Was Australia an intellectual wasteland or an admirable land of vigorous pioneers?

She wonders where she belongs. She loves the outback, but not its isolation. She considers England, for its historical and cultural riches, but finds it snobbish and condescending. She likes Australia, but doesn't fit in there, and isn't likely to. She has intractable family problems, so she escapes to the other side of the planet, far enough away to "be totally safe from family visits." She makes a clean break, with no intention ever to return. "I wasn't going to fight anymore. I was going to admit defeat; turn tail; run for cover."

A good read if you are interested in Australia, in the outback, in sheep ranching, in the empowerment of women, in dysfunctional family dynamics. A straightforward account of one person's struggle for self discovery in a constricting world.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Jill Conway's memoir is about her unusual childhood in Australia. Raised until she was 11 on a sheep farm in Coorain, Australia, Conway grows up without other children for companionship. All she knows are her family, (her only playmates being her older brothers), the hard work associated with
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raising sheep, and the cruelty of mother nature when she doesn't bring the rains. She doesn't have social graces, competitive edges or the typical angsts associated with coming-of age girls. Things like sports, fashion and friendships are lost on her when she finally reaches the big city of Sydney.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
This is the memoir of a woman who grew up on an Australian sheep farm and would go on to become the first woman president of Smith College. I started this book expecting to read a story about the Australian outback and got that--and a lot more. Yes, the picture of growing up on a isolated sheep
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"station" in the forties was certainly interesting. Conway starts with the landscape, giving a picture of the flat and vast vistas, the endless periodic droughts in the arid, ecologically fragile land and how it and the very masculine, stoic "Bush ethos" shapes you. But above all this is an intellectual, as well as emotional, memoir. Growing up with her parents and two older brothers she was so isolated she couldn't remember seeing another female child until she was seven years old and had no playmates her own age. Her memoir was a story of continually expanding intellectual and social horizons. First when she moved to Sydney to enroll in a girl's school at eleven, then as a student at Sydney University in the fifties. She described beautifully how her experiences changed her life and thinking. From what it was like to first encounter writers such as Marx, Samuel Butler, James Joyce, Jung, T.S. Eliot, to the shock of finding herself rejected for a civil service position despite being at the top of her class--solely because she was a woman. The writers who inspired and challenged my thinking were different, but I could identify with her intoxication upon encountering a larger world of ideas, and appreciated how she began to ponder how being a woman and an Australian had shaped her and history.
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LibraryThing member raschneid
A memoir about discovering where you are. Conway describes her childhood and adolescence with a historian's eye for detail and context. She details her discovery of gender, race, and class discrimination, post-colonial politics, and how her typically Australian willingness to suffer in the face of
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hopeless odds has permeated her family life.

This was so impressive in its beauty, emotional honesty, and intellectual rigor. It was a great introduction to Australia for those of us for whom the name only conjures kangaroos, exotic poisonous animals, and Ned Kelly, and it's also a great introduction to the transformative power of history as an academic enterprise. I will definitely look for more from Conway in the future.
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LibraryThing member astrologerjenny
I’ve been wanting to read this book forever, and recently found it in the library. It doesn’t disappoint. It begins with a whole chapter describing the Australian bush country – the shape and colors of the land, the weather, the birds and animals, the people. It’s as though she’s painting
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a vivid, detailed background, empty of specific characters. And then the characters appear: Jill and her family.

Conway leaves very little out, but at the same time, crafts her life story with great skill and command. The main thing that comes through is that she was shaped by Australia, with all its contradictions – its very strong code of behavior coupled with the emulation of all things Britain. She describes her emotional, physical and educational development as she becomes conscious of these contradictions and works through them.

At the end, she says “I’ll never refer to Asia as the Far East again."
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LibraryThing member charlottelow
The first book of any sort I have ever read that captured both the beauty and the harshness of the Western Riverina and its endless horizons. The story really drew me in. I must add that I am from around this general area and first read this book whilst away at boarding school so this may have
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coloured my perception of the book.
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LibraryThing member CasaBooks
Australia is a hard place and this book is riveting in the recollections of a sheep ranch and 8 years of drought. Much family hardship and much much to overcome. For another book, I assume - she becomes first female president of Smith College.
Read in 2010.
LibraryThing member DrLed
Synopsis: Jill Ker Conway grew up on a sheep ranch carved from the unforgiving land in New South Wales. Here life there was idyllic until the eight-year drought killed her father and banished the rest of her family to Sydney. Her struggles to ground herself within this unfamiliar culture cemented
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her love of learning. Her relationship with her mother, only a strong person when in her guise as a professional, finally pushed Jill to leave Australia for a future in the US.
Review: The first few chapters seemed an overly sentimental remembrance of childhood. However, as her story progressed, a much more realistic version of the life of a female in the 1950s took shape. Coming to grips with prejudice, both overt and covert, is difficult and this struggle is masterly recounted. I find it irritating and a bit depressing that attitudes toward smart, strong women haven't changed much over the years.
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LibraryThing member erinfanning
Beautifully written autobiography--practically a page-turner--that takes the author from her childhood on a sheep ranch in Australia's outback to the University of Sydney and her departure for the United States and Harvard.
LibraryThing member maritimer
As long as this memoir stayed in Coorain, I was captivated. Once it strayed down the road, my interest waned. The struggle of Jill Ker Conway's family to make a living on 18,000 acres of droughty Australian outback has an exotic and almost heroic appeal. Her subsequent teens and early twenties in
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Sydney, contending with a difficult mother while trying to find her path in academia, don't have nearly the lustre. The writing is careful and has a whiff of scholarly writing, especially in the way that Conway takes a reductionist approach where almost every event or person gets somehow explained away. Sometimes it feels more like dissection than memoir, and not much leeway is left for the reader to imaginatively connect with Conway's younger self.

My own dwindling interest post-Coorain, is mirrored in the reception of her three memoirs: the further her ambitions pulled her from Coorain, the less interest there was in her books - each appealing to a progressively narrower audience. Regardless though, of how appreciative one might be of Conway's achievements as a pioneering woman in modern day postsecondary education, the trajectory of her life is breathtaking by any standard. As a child she alone could comfort her young father through his horrifying nightmares of Ypres, Passchendaele, and France. Nowadays her interviews and speeches are featured on Youtube. Her cohort, those who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s, and who are now hitting their 80s, have lived through more profound social, cultural, technological, and political change than any other. In Conway's case this passage is amplified by how far she also came geographically and by how much she was able to achieve along the way.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Jill Ker Conway was the first woman to serve as president of Smith College in Massachusetts, and this memoir depicts the first part of her life journey, from birth on an Australian sheep farm to her mid-20s, when she left for the United States. Conway’s parents became homesteaders in a remote
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part of Australia in 1929, as part of a government program granting land to former soldiers. It was a hard and isolated life, but they had many years of successful farming until a drought hit. A significant life event led them from Coorain to Sidney, where at age 11, Conway attended school with other children for the first time. The rest of the memoir describes her intellectual growth in the face of gender discrimination, her changing role in the family, and her relationship with her mother which presented several conflicts and dilemmas as Conway matured.

I found Conway’s story quite interesting, especially her fight against societal pressure to conform to the expected female role. Ultimately she had to leave her home country to pursue her dreams, which made me curious about the later phases in her life and whether she ever felt “at home” in Australia again. But those are subjects of later memoirs …
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LibraryThing member reannon
Jill Ker Conway is an academic who has lived a fascinating life. This is the first of three volumes of her memoirs, and tells of her early life spent on a farm in the Australian outback, and living through horrible years of draught. She then moved to the city and went to school, then college, then
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to the U.S. for graduate school. The memoir is honest, sometimes painfully so, and it is exciting to follow the development of an excellent mind and a strong woman.
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LibraryThing member scottjpearson
Few things seem further from North America than Australia. Not only is it half-a-world away, but the culture varies dramatically. Conway grew up in the back-country of Australia where she often did not regularly see other families and neighbors were tens-of-miles away. That simple start, told as
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well as it is in this book, sparks the reader’s interest. The fact that she ended up at Harvard by the end of the book should pique even more interest.

Conway details her life in the outback, her transition to a private school in Sydney, and her undergraduate days at the University of Sydney. As such, this memoir is a real-life coming-of-age tale. She describes how she fell in love with the field of history and decided to dedicate her life to being a scholar of women’s history.

Her writing style is impressive and entertaining. Not only does she describe things accurately and with a healthy distance, but she also picks interesting details that bring her world alive to the reader. Obviously well-read, she shows the character that brought her from an oppressive environment towards eventually becoming a leader in women’s education.

I find personal inspiration from feminists like Conway. Often, men are not encouraged to find their own place in the world like many women (especially ambitious women) are forced to. As such, the narrative of male lives often does not involve the quest for being and existence. However, I find that I, too, have those questions. Conway’s tale gives me some more rungs to hang my experience on, and for that, I am grateful.

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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Conway's autobiography of her childhood is interesting for the glimpse it offers of a completely different life - growing up on a large Australian sheep station. It's an honest look, too, at the relationships and family dynamics that might have broken a less intelligent and/or determined young
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girl. I enjoyed it, but I just don't like reading biographies for book club - we wind up discussing the person's life or events, rather than the BOOK & writing. (Added note: Aug 2009 - despite my own decided bias, ALL of the book clubs I participate in have continued to occasionally choose biographies or autobiographies. I still feel the same way about the discussion - or lack thereof.)
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