True North

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In her first autobiography, The Road from Coorain (1989), Jill Ker Conway explored the cultural history of her homeland, Australia, and her personal history of family, friends, growing up, and moving from Australia to the United States. That book ended with the author, then twenty-five, boarding a plane that would carry her to the next stage of her journey. True North: A Memoir begins when she lands, in a hurricane, in New York, reflecting on how her “setting out was not exactly the departure of a conquering hero, but more the ambiguous result of deciding that [she] had to get away from Australia to view life from a different perspective.” This note of ambiguity—this awareness that life-altering decisions are complicated and fraught with mixed motives and understandings—characterizes Conway’s second self-portrait. True North is a thoughtful exploration of Conway, her sense of place, her ideas of higher education, and her reflections on feminism—all done with a recognition that ambiguity, complexity, and tentativeness are at the heart of these four ideas.

In the first place, the book is an exploration of Jill Ker Conway, an Australian whose childhood was shaped by growing up on an isolated sheep-farm in the grasslands of New South Wales. Her childhood and adolescence were also influenced by the deaths of her father and brother and the domination of a neurotic mother, from whose power the young girl escaped first by going to the university in Sydney and then by leaving to pursue her doctorate in history at Harvard University. True North, in its continuation of this story, also explores the personal and geographical influences that persisted in shaping Conway’s life.

The first group of people who influence Conway are the Harvard professors who recognize her insatiable hunger for knowledge and the graduate students who see in Conway a kindred spirit. In particular, Conway finds housemates among the graduate students with whom she can create a community filled with good humor, camaraderie, and support during the rigors of graduate work.

Among the faculty important to Conway are Oscar Handlin, a social historian whose sense of being the child of immigrants—an outsider—touches her in several ways, especially in her reflections on the Australian experience. She ponders the history of her country, its transplanted people who labored for a better life and whose dreams were often squashed by natural disasters, such as the drought that Conway experienced in her childhood. Handlin’s communication of the tragic dimension of human experience becomes more than merely a history lesson for Conway; it is “a heady new fix for a boundless appetite.” Other Harvard faculty also contribute to whetting and satiating Conway’s hunger: Bernard Bailyn teaches colonial history in such an exciting way that Conway practically dances as she leaves the lecture hall, Donald Fleming performs in his classes as if he were reading a Dickens serial to enthralled listeners, and Sam Thorpe teaches medieval constitutional history without notes, mesmerizing his students by his incessant pacing and extraordinary ability to make the medieval period alive and unforgettable. Taken together, these and other Harvard faculty open intellectual doors through which Jill Ker Conway strides with confidence and excitement.

Another group of people who open doors for Conway are her fellow graduate students, particularly the five women with whom she sets up house. Describing this group as “magical,” Conway’s narrative points to the eclectic qualities that make the community stimulating and enriching. The differences within the group are especially evident in Conway’s descriptions of their religious orientations: Barbara and Jana are Roman Catholic, Mina is a Shiite Muslim, Carla is Jewish, and Linda—the sole American stalwart—is a New England Congregationalist. With Conway’s Anglican girls’ boarding-school experience tossed into this religious hopper, the community of housemates is truly an ecumenical mix. As the women explore their religious differences, they also explore how these and other differences enrich the lives of the group, thus providing a true source of support and vitality for all of them, especially Conway herself.

The most important person in the life of this Australian transplant, however,...

(The entire section is 1789 words.)