When Jill Ker Conway decided her future lay in the life of the mind the idea came as a revelation. Having surprised her mother by scoring top in her class at university, Conway’s enthusiasm carried her into the future: “Better still was my inner feeling that I had found something I could do well, and my new awareness that university study was about learning and reflection, not the cramming of texts and information. Now I had a purpose in life. I would take an honors degree, rank high in the class, and set about choosing between the variety of promising career opportunities which went with such achievement.”
Indeed Conway did finish her degree. She went on to teach and write, and to move to the United States for graduate work at Harvard. At the age of forty she was appointed the first woman president of Smith College.
As much as she loved it the academic life was a long way from Conway’s girlhood on her family’s sheep station in New South Wales. The farm, called Coorain after an Aboriginal word meaning ‘windy place,’ was an isolated but beautiful tract of open land. Life there was marginal and threatening. Growing up the only girl in a family of five, Conway didn’t see another girl her age until she was 11. She remembers her mother treated her own ruptured eardrum with warm salt.
A catastrophic eight year drought forced the family to leave Coorain. Her 1989 memoir, The Road from Coorain, describes Conway’s transformation from rural girl to intellectual woman. It’s what Conway has called a “quest narrative,” and a deliberate attempt to write a woman’s story outside of a romantic narrative. Indeed, Conway’s story concerns reconciling the Australia she loves with the Australia she experiences, the Australia she knows with the Australia she has felt. It’s also the story of an expatriate in the making.
Coming of age in Australia in the 1950s, Conway saw herself as an anomaly. “My family and school friends agreed that I was ‘brainy.’ This was a bad thing to be in Australia. People distrusted intellectuals. Australians mocked anyone with ‘big ideas’ and found them specially laughable in women.”
Despite her marginal status, Conway clearly loves Australia and its people. (She says that one of her motivations for writing the book was to combat the myth of the Crocodile Dundee Australian male, a ‘vulgar projection of the Australian male myth.’) When she chooses the academic career path, her attachment to the plains of New South Wales forms her resolve to write an Australian history that stays true to that arid land.
Limited opportunities in Australia push Conway to look beyond the continent. The Road from Coorain ends with Conway’s departure for The United States. “In writing The Road From Coorain I thought it was important to relate the story of a young woman taking charge of her life in an unromantic way, in which it’s perfectly clear that she arrives at a moment of choice.”
Published in 1989, The Road from Coorain sparked a trilogy. (It was also adapted for television in 2001.) The other titles in Conway’s autobiography series are True North and A Woman’s Education.