Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Road From Coorain by Jill Ker Conway

The Road From Coorain
Jill Ker Conway
Published 1989

All I want to do is gush over this book, and convince you to read it, as opposed to write a detailed narrative about it.  I will do my best to do a little of both, without the details.

Because I did not know who Jill Ker Conway was, I did not purchase a copy of this book to keep forever; instead, I borrowed a copy from the library.  Sheepishly, I admit, I marked (in pencil) all over its pages, and before I return it, will need to erase each evidence of my excitement and pleasure and agreement.

Jill Ker Conway was born 1934, and grew up in the outback of Australia.  She had two typical older brothers and loving parents.   Her parents owned thousands of acres of land and raised sheep for their livelihood. Theirs was a life of isolated loneliness, hardship, and disappointment because they were distant from civilization and continuously at the mercy of the rough environment and unforgiving climate.  In addition, they lived through WWII.  Readers of the West will experience a different perspective of the war from the eyes of an Australian.  It was quite frightening.  

Nonetheless, Jill's mother educated her young daughter, providing her with the tools to become self-sufficient, independent, and intelligent.  She immersed Jill in literature and history.  When Jill was eventually sent to school, she was far beyond the education of her peers; but she was also socially inept.

Then tragedy struck their family, not once, but twice - it was heartbreaking and shocking.  (I won't say what; you'll have to read it yourself).  

The bulk of the Jill's story is about her struggles - struggles with her social awkwardness; her overbearing, overwhelming mother (yes, the one who provided her with such independence, determination, and necessary survival skills); her own personal rebelliousness; and later, her struggle with society, as it was in her time.   It was a world that told her there was no place for her kind - an intelligent, independent, serious woman. Society (both men and women) did not know what to do with her, how to treat her, how to speak to her, or where to place her.

The one thing she was determined to do most was to write about the true history of Australia; but Australia was not ready (according to Jill) to listen to an intelligent woman.  They did not expect her to know.  Yet, this was a turning point in her adult life.  The wonderful determining spirit of Jill Ker Conway thought: if I can't do what I want here (in Australia), I will find the place where I can; and she went to Harvard, in America, leaving the land she loved, tearing away from her mother's grip, in the process.  On the day of her departure, Jill said to herself,
I was leaving because I didn't fit in, never had, and wasn't likely to.  I didn't belong for many reasons.  I was a woman who wanted to do serious work and have it make a difference.  I wanted to think about Australia in a way that made everyone else uncomfortable.  I loved my native earth passionately and was going into emotional exile, but there was no turn of political or military fortune which could bring me back in triumph.  I was going to another country, to begin all over again.
While this is the end of this particular autobiography, it is only the beginning of Jill's story.  She goes on to accomplish great works, and her ideal of being taken seriously as an intelligent woman, with something to contribute to the world, comes to fruition.  I greatly admire her because her kind of feminism is one of determination and purpose. Even through her hardships, obstacles, and defeats, she remained firm and resolved.  Oh, yes, she was angry - frustrated by her circumstances - but she knew her capabilities and her worth. When she was not taken seriously, she moved on.  Her purpose was to accomplish what needed to be done, even though it meant leaving the place she loved.  

When I finished this book, I ordered my very own copy; yesterday it arrived.  This is one story I will gratefully read again.  

Portrait of Jill Ker Conway, by Sarah Belchetz-Swenson, 1987


Jean said...

Wow, that sounds like a book I'll have to read!

Heidi’sbooks said...

I've never heard of this. It sounds like a powerful read.

Ruth said...

It was a fascinating story.

Ruth said...

Neither had I, but it was well worth reading.

Anonymous said...

What a great review about Jill, many thanks!
Inspiration women....we all need them.
This is just what I've been looking for.
I am searching for a book for AusReadingMonth challenge that I enter every year.
I will order this one now!

Cleo said...

The longer I've sat with this book after reading it, honestly, the less I like it. I actually LOVED the narrative of her years on the farm, but when she went to the city, I found her story lost steam for me. It's not that I didn't appreciate her struggles for acceptance as an intelligent woman, I found her observations at times, somewhat ...... gosh, I can't think of a good word ..... one-sided? dogmatic? abrupt? I felt that in lamenting the things that went against her as a woman, she was cultivating the same mind-set in an opposite way that, if applied, would allow that mentality to flourish. I'm not explaining myself very well, I know. I think it's sometimes hard for women who want to step out of their societal "role", to communicate their feelings well. I absolutely LOVE Dorothy Sayers, but her "feminist" tract, Are Women Human? always startles me when I read it. I can appreciate it and I think it's wonderful, but she comes across with a chip on her shoulder, which I think detracts from her arguments. In any case, I'm babbling, so I'll stop here. I'm glad that this one affected you so positively. I'll be interested to see what you make of All Rivers Run to the Sea.

Ruth said...

Yay! I look forward to reading your opinion after you are through. : )

Ruth said...

I'm so bummed you weren't excited about it. I think I understand what you are saying: her opinions are one-sided because the reader doesn't get the other side of the story. But what I felt, if that is appropriate, is that she was collected about her purpose. Yes, she was incensed about her circumstances, but she composed herself and determined to do what she wanted, thinking nothing could stop her. She didn't proclaim victimhood, she didn't complain (at least not in this memoir), and she did not give up. I felt like she was broadsided by the ways of the world - after living separated to the world for so long - that she was shocked the world treated women this way, and that women were expected to behave and think and live only a certain way. Once she realized this, she figured she needed to find a way around it; and she did it.

Anyway, some of her liberal ideas I disagree with, but I am curious where she stands today. I'll have to read some of her other works. I'm interested in reading Education of Women.

Looking forward to my last biography. : )

Cleo said...

Don't be bummed ..... I wanted to like it and did for the first half of it.

I think what bothered me is that her experiences seemed to make her less human .... I can't believe I'm saying that ... perhaps I should say a little less human. She seemed to have less grace for people, but perhaps I'm just sensitive to that now. I did like the strength she showed and with very little support, she got herself into a place in life that was fulfilling to her.

I loved Wiesel, so we'll see how it goes with you ... ;-)

Ruth said...

Maybe the hardships hardened her heart. And she was taught DUTY FIRST, which kept her separated from her emotions. I think your observation is true. She was at her wits end with her mom, and she put her dreams over the one guy who she really liked, which was not common for a woman to do. She did seem hardened, and it makes sense.

Ruth said...

*WHOM* she really liked. : )

Carol said...

I remember reading Cleopatra's review on this book & it's interesting to read your thoughts on it. I love how different readers come away with different views & it always helps me to read various perspectives. I never enjoy a library book as much as my own copy & like to underline & put astericks everywhere.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Putting it on my TBR list! My library doesn't have it, just a PBS documentary about her with the same title. I see from Amazon that there are two more books by her that continue the story of her life.

Ruth said...

I've been meaning to read her review. I need to get over there. Thanks for reminding me.

Yep, me too on defacing the pages of my books. : D

Ruth said...

She wrote a lot. I found one about women and education that looks interesting.

Anonymous said...

I finished this book a year after you. While I'm pleased to read your well-spoken impression, mine was quite different and more in line with the comments from Cleopatra. You and I agree there was much ado about "her struggles." Much too much, I thought, which caused me to summarize the tale somewhat harshly: "Cursed be my intellect, affluence, and robust life experiences because there may never be someone so exceptional as to live up to my image of myself."

I could not have predicted from the pages of "Courain" that Jill Ker Conway would have the successful life she later found. She spent so many years, as you quote, "leaving because [she] didn't fit in, never had, and wasn't likely to." She left jobs (she could afford to); she left friends; she left male companions; she left the person who needed her most; she left her homeland. At that point I would not have trusted her commitment to anything other than being a jurist, for she WAS good at making judgements.

Thanks for having a blog open to opinions.