The Road From Coorain
Jill Ker Conway
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|