The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

The Road from Coorain revealed layer after layer of fascination. The cover notes let you know what to expect: young woman grows up in the Australian outback, goes on to a distinguished academic career, and ultimately serves as President of Smith College.

Jill Ker Conway is a thoroughly engaging writer.  She brings to this already exotic outline evocative description of time and place and penetrating analysis of herself and others.  She puts us on the sheep station where she grew up and makes us feel the landscape, the characters that inhabit it, and the highs and lows of life at the margins of the social and economic world of Australia in the 1930s and 1940s. She memorably describes the Australian national myth as exalting “epic failure,” typified by her family’s struggle against natural forces that would inevitably prevail.

Against that often bleak landscape, Conway shows the evolution of her family’s complex relationships and her own growth in awareness and competence.  When extended drought pushes her family to move into the city, she has already formed a solid base of independence and curiosity.  Building on that, Conway vividly describes her experiences through high school and university that impelled her into a distinguished academic career as a historian.  Ultimately the limited academic opportunities and sexual discrimination she encountered in Australia led her to leave for graduate school at Harvard.

The Road from Coorain is the first of three autobiographical works. It is followed chronologically by True North, covering a decade of academic work in Toronto, and A Woman’s Education, dealing with her time as the first female President of Smith College and a reinvention of women’s education.

— Bill Smith


[*]Full disclosure:  My mother, sister, and daughter attended Smith.

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