The Road from Coorain
The Road from Coorain is first and finally the autobiography of Jill Ker Conway, the first female president of Smith College, though its focus is not upon her presidency but upon her childhood and young adulthood. It is also a study of feminism—its complexities and its challenges—and a book about the cultural history of Conway’s homeland, Australia. This self-portrait, then, not only explores and re- creates one individual’s past but also situates that life story in a larger, complicated context of humanity and history.
In the tradition of autobiographies that employ fictional devices, such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) or Lillian Hellman’s several self-portraits, The Road from Coorain opens with a storyteller’s description of the setting. The landscape of New South Wales, Australia, is described in compelling detail, with its plains and their endless horizon, its ever-present red dust, its emus and kangaroos and kookaburras. Conway recalls the bleakness of this world that dwarfs human beings and their lives as a place that defies imagining “a kookaburra feeding St. Jerome or accompanying St. Francis. They belong to a physical and spiritual landscape which is outside the imagination of the Christian West.” They also belong to a landscape that shapes its people into self- reliant, independent individuals, “real men” who learn to reject comfort and emotional expression and women who struggle with isolation and loneliness.
Conway’s mother and father are prototypes of these men and women. Purchasing and committing their lives to a soldier settler’s block of land on the western plains, they called their property Coorain, an aboriginal word meaning “windy place.” For Conway’s father, stoic and single-minded in his obsession with the land, Coorain was a dream come true; for Conway’s mother, a nurse who had grown up in a comfortable Queensland urban area, Coorain was a nightmare. For Conway and her brothers Robert and Barry, the early years at Coorain resembled her father’s view, for their lives were idyllic. By 1942, however, when Conway was eight, their lives were changed, and the dream became a nightmare. A severe drought occurred, Conway’s father died in an episode that suggests suicide, and Conway, her brothers, and her mother were cast out from a paradise that, in Conway’s words, “had become literally purgatorial for us.” As they left Coorain for Sydney, Conway recounts her awareness that she would have to serve as her “father’s agent in the family and muster the energy to deal with such further disasters as might befall us.”
Those subsequent disasters were largely familial and mostly related to Conway’s mother, who became both increasingly dependent upon her daughter and increasingly manipulative of her. Conway tried to understand this relationship while dealing with other dilemmas of growing up: finding the right school and friends, dealing with the death of her beloved brother Bob, coming to grips with her sexuality. As she relates the ways in which she learned to reconcile most of her concerns, she considers how her relationship with her mother persisted as a painful conundrum. In her effort to solve this puzzle, she passed through various stages of understanding, including an epiphany she had when reading a Carl Jung essay, “The Positive and Negative Aspects of the Mother Archetype.” She discovered that she and her mother were Demeter and Persephone, and that her mother would be destroyed if she were to lose her daughter. Following her father’s stoic model, she decided to grit her teeth, stop complaining, and devote herself to her mother.
This decision was revoked, however, when Conway recognized that her commitment to her mother, like her commitment to Australia, meant bondage and entrapment. A series of experiences,...
(The entire section is 1577 words.)