"A remarkable memoir....A tale of 'guilt transformed into an intellectual calling,' the awakening at once of a heart and a historian." Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Times Book Review
"Sheer delight...A graceful, thoughtful, vibrantly detailed book...teeming with discoveries." Alida Becker, Washington Post Book World
"A wonderful book...A fresh exploration of those eternal questions: Where am I from? How has that shaped me? Where do I belong?...A rare sensibility informs it." Charlotte Innes, Philadelphia Inquirer
In a memoir that pierces and delights us, Jill Ker Conway tells the story of her astonishing journey into adulthood a journey that would ultimately span immense distances and encompass worlds, ideas, and ways of life that seem a century apart.
She was seven before she ever saw another girl child. At eight, still too small to mount her horse unaided, she was galloping miles, alone, across Coorain, her parents' thirty thousand windswept, drought-haunted acres in the Australian outback, doing a "man's job" of helping herd the sheep because World War II had taken away the able-bodied men. She loved (and makes us see and feel) the vast unpeopled landscape, beautiful and hostile, whose uncertain weathers tormented the sheep ranchers with conflicting promises of riches and inescapable disaster. She adored (and makes us know) her large-visioned father and her strong, radiant mother, who had gone willingly with him into a pioneering life of loneliness and bone-breaking toil, who seemed miraculously to succeed in creating a warmly sheltering home in the harsh outback, and who, upon her husband's sudden death when Jill was ten, began to slide bereft of the partnership of work and love that had so utterly fulfilled her into depression and dependency.
We see Jill, staggered by the loss of her father, catapulted to what seemed another planet the suburban Sydney of the 1950s and its crowded, noisy, cliquish school life. Then the heady excitement of the University, but with it a yet more demanding course of lessons Jill embracing new ideas, new possibilities, while at the same time trying to be mother to her mother and resenting it, escaping into drink, pulling herself back, striking a balance. We see her slowly gaining strength, coming into her own emotionally and intellectually and beginning the joyous love affair that gave wings to her newfound self.
Worlds away from Coorain, in America, Jill Conway became a historian and the first woman president of Smith College. Her story of Coorain and the road from Coorain startles by its passion and evocative power, by its understanding of the ways in which a total, deep-rooted commitment to place or to a dream can at once liberate and imprison. It is a story of childhood as both Eden and anguish, and of growing up as a journey toward the difficult life of the free."
Jill Ker Conway is a noted historian, specializing in the experience of women in America, and was the first woman president of Smith College.
1. In the first chapter, Conway writes of the "bush ethos which grew up from making a virtue out of loneliness and hardship" (p. 8). Stoicism and self- sufficiency are the ideals adopted by the outback settlers. How have those ideals shaped the Kers' lives? In what way have they been destructive to the family? Though Conway finally rejected these values, is it possible that they helped her to break away from her potentially
unproductive life and start again?
2. Conway stresses the fact that Australians of her parents' generation defined themselves as Britons and saw their own country only in British terms. They equated their national interests with England's; even their map of the world was seen from a British perspective, with nearby Japan located in the "Far East." How did this attitude shape the educational system into which Jill and her brothers were placed? How did it color their attitudes toward their native country? How did it shape the young Australians' class consciousness, in a country whose social and racial make-up was so different from contemporary England's?
3. How does Conway present her mother as a prototypical twentieth-century woman? In what way are the attitudes of Australian society to blame for the mother's deterioration from being an independent professional, a "great healer" (p. 195), to a neurotic hypochondriac? How has her simple system of values proved inadequate to the complex world of the twentieth century? To what degree do you feel that she has caused her own problems?
4. Conway compares the barriers against women that she herself encountered as she grew up with those that shaped her mother's life. Some were openly acknowledged (i.e., the inequitable wages for men and women offered in the Help Wanted ads). Some were more insidious: unspoken prejudices buried deep within the culture. How do the two women differ in the way they confront these barriers? How do their different educational backgrounds affect their points of view?
5. Conway speculates that had her parents encountered failure earlier in their lives, they might "have learned to bend a little before the harshness of fate" (p. 23). How does the disastrous drought at Coorain affect the character of Conway's father? Conway suggests that his death was a suicide. Does she acknowledge and confront his implied abandonment of her and the rest of the family?
6. "It was a comprehensible world" (p. 50), Conway writes of her early childhood on Coorain. "One saw visible results from one's labors" (p. 50). In what way does the young girl's comprehensible world turn into an incomprehensible one? What efforts does she make to confer meaning upon it? How do religious, spiritual, and intellectual systems of thought help or hinder her?
7. Conway writes that in Australia, "people distrusted intellectuals. Australians mocked anyone with 'big ideas' and found them specially laughable in women" (p. 146). But the same Australians who mocked "ideas" also had a high regard for success, inclusive of academic success. What shape do these contradictory attitudes give Australian society? How does the isolated position of Australian intellectuals, as depicted by Conway, reflect this dichotomy? The United States, like Australia, is a culture with a significant history of anti-intellectualism. How is this reflected in our own society?
8. How did Conway's experiences with professional discrimination against women bring her to a more personal realization of the fate of Australia's aboriginal people? What do her parents' use of the nardoo stones found on Coorain signify to her?
9. Mid-century Australia had an overwhelmingly white population, but this was not true of England's colonies and dominions in Asia and Africa. How does Conway's visit to newly independent Ceylon change her view of the British Empire and of the imperialist credo of white superiority? The credo is not merely racial, but cultural as well. What perspective is Conway given on her own society's culture and history by her first encounter with the wider world?
10. While the Australians willingly went to war for England, England's treatment of Australia as expendable during the Second World War dramatized the actual state of affairs. Conway knew that "it was time to give up pretenses of the old British Empire, recognize that we were a Southern Pacific nation, and begin to study and understand the peoples and countries of our part of the globe" (p. 182). How does Conway relate her own choice of vocation as a historian to her country's quest for identity? By extension, in what symbolic ways does she identify her own life with that of Australia?
11. Conway's story, like James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ends with her acceptance of a life of exile. But unlike Joyce, she sees her exile as resulting from a series of "thorough and all-encompassing defeats" (p. 236). Is the narrative of Conway's early life really a story of defeat? Or is it perhaps a story of success? Conway felt that she had failed in several areas--in making her mother happy, in running Coorain--but were these quixotic battles, impossible to win? Do you feel, as she did, that she turned her back on her duty?
12. Jill Ker Conway has written: "The rise of democracy has enlarged the focus of interest in the lives of other people--from monarch, great general, and political leader to the ordinary person--someone like ourselves" (Written by Herself, p. vii). How does Conway shape her own story--that of an obscure, isolated young girl--into a narrative with wide social and historical implications?
13. How does Conway shape the plot of The Road from Coorain? Is it a romance, a story of material success, an odyssey, a spiritual or intellectual quest or the story of a conflict between mother and daughter?
14. Conway has written elsewhere about her environmental concerns. What is the role of nature in this narrative, and how does her own understanding of the natural world influence her intellectual development?
15. The Road from Coorain is a narrative about separation and the formation of a strongly bonded female personality. It is thus a story which runs counter to a current sentimental view of women's lives as networks of relationships. Is Conway's view persuasive?
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Jill Ker Conway's The Road from Coorain. We hope they will aid your understanding of the many rich themes that make up Conway's story of her youth in mid-century Australia.
NOTE TO TEACHERS
The Road from Coorain, which tells the story of Jill Ker Conway's childhood and youth in Australia, is one of the most extraordinary autobiographies of recent years. Written in a vivid, compelling style, it should prove particularly attractive to young American students who will be eager to compare the world Conway brings to life--foreign and exotic, yet in many ways oddly similar to their own--with the conventions and traditions of their own society.
In 1930 Jill Ker Conway's newly married parents bought the remote sheep station of Coorain. There Jill and her two elder brothers enjoyed an idyllic childhood on the prosperous and beautiful estate. But when Jill reached the age of eight, Coorain was struck by a devastating drought in which most of the Kers' sheep were lost. Jill's father died, and the grief-stricken family, overwhelmed by the series of disasters, left their beloved home and moved to the city of Sydney. There Jill attended a private girls' school and subsequently the University of Sydney, where she began what was to become a distinguished career as a historian.
As Jill grows up and discovers her own strengths, her mother, who on Coorain had seemed a tower of strength, begins a steady disintegration. As a widow, confounded by the complexities of life in urban Australia, Mrs. Ker becomes an emotional tyrant who bitterly clings to her children.
Jill Ker Conway entwines her coming-of-age story with that of her country: the British Empire is disintegrating, and as England retreats to a local rather than an international role in world affairs, Australia must set out to claim its own identity not as an extension of England but as a Pacific nation with a distinctive culture and history. Conway's search for her own identity, as a woman and as an Australian, makes for a rich and rewarding story.
The questions, exercises, and assignments that follow are designed to guide your students through The Road from Coorain and to help them to approach it both as an autobiography and as a telling commentary on a particular culture and one woman's place within it. Jill Ker Conway's narrative of the many challenges and decisions that faced her in her young life should inspire your students to make comparisons between her life and their own, and between Australian society at mid-century and their own world. The questions below test reader comprehension, suggest themes for in-depth discussion, and point the way toward more extensive reading and research. Students should be encouraged to examine their own society as closely as Conway has examined hers, and, like her, to challenge received cultural assumptions.
DISCUSSION AND WRITING
Understanding Australia and its role in the story
1. Describing the landscape of Coorain in the first chapter, Conway says "Human purposes are dwarfed by such a blank horizon" [p. 5]. What does she imply here? What effect might this landscape have upon the human beings that inhabit it?
2. The birds and animals of Australia are unlike those of any other country: "They belong to a physical and spiritual landscape which is outside the imagination of the Christian West" [p. 6]. Why do you think that Conway stresses the difference, the separateness of Australia from the West?
3. "The way of life that grew up for white settlers was unique," says Conway [p. 7]. How was this life unique? What made it different from that of any other society in the world?
4. How would you describe the "bush ethos" [p. 8] of Conway's childhood? How would you compare it with the ethos of your own community? What roles were assigned to men and to women? What did it mean, in that world, to be a "real man" [p. 8]? Is it realistic to expect people to be so stoic, to believe that "the universe [is] hostile" [p. 8]?
5. Why do so many Australians wish for the life of a sheep grazier, despite all its hardships? What makes such a life attractive?
6. What does Conway mean when she says that the soldier settlers "laughed at Mayfair accents but spoke fondly of Blighty" [p. 12]? Why do these people have mixed feelings about England? In what ways do they emulate the English, and in what ways do they stress their own difference?
7. When the Australians listened to the BBC, "they absorbed a map of the world which placed their near neighbor, Japan, in the Far East, and located distant Turkey in the Near East" [p. 14]. Which countries are actually Australia's neighbors? With which countries should Australians feel a sense of shared geography and destiny?
8. Not only Australian conservatives but those on the left, writes Conway, were mistaken about the place Australia must take in the world. "They were hostages to the worldview of the British working class, and the history of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution. Australia was different" [p. 182]. Why is it different? Why are its class conflicts different from those of Britain? What is the ANZUS Pact, and what significance should it have for Australia's relations with Britain?
Understanding the story
1. Conway describes her parents as "two natural risk takers" [p. 17]. How would you describe the characters of her parents? How are they similar and how do they differ? Which do you think is the stronger?
2. How has Mrs. Ker's character been shaped by her own parents, in Conway's opinion? What effect did her father's desertion have upon her outlook and her feelings about men? Did it prompt her to seek independence?
3. Mrs. Ker likes to tell her daughter the story of her dramatic birth [p. 27]. Why might Jill be disturbed by this story?
4. What is the nardoo stone [p. 30] upon which the Kers rest their feet? Why is its presence, and its position in the household, significant?
5. How does Mrs. Ker's way of teaching inspire a love of learning in her daughter?
6. When Jill works on the ranch with her father during the drought, she reflects that "too much is being asked of me" [p. 58]. Do you feel that this is true? Are her parents to blame for her not having had a normal childhood? Why do you think it was Jill, rather than her brothers, who fell into the role of being "the person in the family who would rise to the occasion, no matter the size of the task" [p. 58]?
7. Why does Pommy kill himself? Conway says that Pommy "came to be one of my symbols for our need for society, and of the folly of believing that we can manage our fate alone" [p. 61]. How does Conway apply the lesson of his death to her own life?
8. "One troublesome aspect of the frustration of my parents' dreams was the extent to which they transferred their ambitions to their children" [p. 65]. How does this transferral affect Jill and her brothers? Is such a transferral a common element of family life, in your experience?
9. What effect does the fall of Singapore have upon the Kers' world view? How do the events of World War II change Australian ideas? Why do the Kers consider the Labour Prime Minister John Curtin "an Australian patriot" [p. 69]?
10. Why does Mr. Ker visit Jill in her bedroom the morning of his death? Do you believe that he intended to kill himself?
11. Conway writes that some of her first lessons in feminism came from watching her mother deal with the valuation agent sent to Coorain after Mr. Ker's death [p. 74]. What did she learn from these lessons? Why is Mrs. Ker so outraged by his valuations?
12. "I did not understand the nature of the ecological disaster which had transformed my world, or that we ourselves had been agents as well as participants in our own catastrophe" [p. 82]. Whom does she mean by "we"? In what way had they been agents in the catastrophe?
13. What does Conway learn about the Australian class system from her brief stay at the local state school? What does she mean when she says, "My encounter was a classic confrontation for the Australia of my generation" [p. 94]? Why does she consider the culture represented by these students "more vital and unquestionably authentic" [p. 94] than her own? Would you agree with her? Do you believe that she made the right decision in leaving this school?
14. Why does Conway consider Miss Everett "a most unusual schoolteacher" [p. 97]? How does she differ from most Australian academics? Why is she considered subversive by her peers?
15. Does the curriculum at Abbotsleigh School strike you as absurd, or do you find it valuable? How might it have been improved? What about the school's code of morals and behavior: which elements of it do you find valuable and which do you find inappropriate?
16. Why is Mrs. Ker's "code of thrift, sobriety, and industry" [p. 109] insufficient for her new life in the city? Why is it insufficient for her children? Why do you think that Mrs. Ker is attracted to Theosophy and spiritualism?
17. Why does Conway entitle her sixth chapter "Finding the Southern Cross"?
18. What surprises does Conway discover in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)? In what ways does Ceylon, "a society of caste" [p. 131], differ from Australia? How do the attitudes of the Ceylonese differ from those with which Conway has been familiar in Australia?
19. How would you describe Mrs. Ker's relationship with her son Barry? Which of them proves to be the stronger?
20. Why does Conway entitle her seventh chapter "The Nardoo Stones"?
21. Does Conway receive encouragement to attend university? What is her mother's attitude to her wish for higher education? Is Mrs. Ker proud of her daughter's intelligence, or is she scornful--or jealous? What does it mean to be "brainy" in Australia?
22. "I felt I had no right to exist unless serving the family in some tangible way" [p. 156], writes Conway. Do you find this to be a common feeling among young girls and women in your own community? Are they encouraged to feel this way?
23. What does Conway learn about life from her friend Toni? What does she learn from Nina? How do these two friends enrich her life?
24. After reading Marx and Engels, Conway asks herself a number of questions about herself, her family, and the circumstances of her childhood [p. 170]. How would you answer these questions?
25. In what ways does Peter Stone differ from other young men Conway knows? Why do they decide to stop seeing each other?
26. What makes Conway choose her particular dissertation subject? Do you think that in deciding to write on this topic, Conway hopes to come to a greater understanding of her own life?
27. Why is Conway rejected by the Department of External Affairs? Do you think she would have been happy in such a job? What does this rejection teach her about discrimination against women? How does it affect her thoughts about Australia's aboriginal people? How does the rejection ultimately help her, make her a fuller and wiser person?
28. How does Conway's vision of her mother change during their trip to Europe? What does she herself learn from her visits to Santiago de Compostela and the Grande Chartreuse?
29. How does Conway react to her first trip to England? What does she admire about British tradition and history, and what does she reject? Why does she ultimately decide, "I was not at home here and never could be" [p. 208]?
30. "I could see," writes Conway, "that the so-called sexual liberation had asymmetrical results" [p. 221]. What does she mean by this? Just how beneficial does she feel the sexual revolution has been?
31. Why does Conway feel compelled to make the nighttime drive to Coorain, even though there are murderers on the road? Does she end up by being proud of her own bravery? What effect do the Scotsman's words have on her view of herself?
32. Why does Conway decide against a life in the bush? Why does she decide against staying in Australia? Why does she reject England as a possible home, and choose the United States?
33. How does Alec Merton expand Conway's horizons? In what way is he different from other men she has known? Why does she decide, finally, to split up with him?
34. How does Conway "violate the code of [her] forefathers" [p. 232]?
1. In the first chapter, Conway writes of the "bush ethos which grew up from making a virtue out of loneliness and hardship" [p. 8]. Stoicism and self-sufficiency are the ideals adopted by the outback settlers. How have these ideals shaped the lives of Jill's parents? In what way have they proved destructive to the family? How have they shaped Conway herself? Though she finally rejects these values, is it possible that they helped her break away from a life that could have turned out to be unhappy and unproductive?
2. "Knowledge about nature, the care of animals, practical mechanics was respected, but speculation and the world of ideas were signs of softness and impracticality" [p. 8]. What is it in the history of Australian settlement that has encouraged this way of thinking? What effect does this ethos have upon Jill's life? Does it contribute, in your opinion, to her decision to leave Australia? Can you detect similar attitudes in your own country and community?
3. Conway stresses the fact that Australians of her parents' generation defined themselves as Britons and saw their own country only in British terms, equating their national interests with England's. How did this attitude shape the educational system Jill and her brothers experienced? How did it affect their attitudes toward Australia and its native people? How did it mold their class consciousness?
4. Conway presents her mother as a complex character, with good and bad aspects. Which of her characteristics do you find positive? Which are negative? How does Conway present her mother's situation as being typical of a twentieth-century woman? How far should the attitudes of Australian society be seen as causing her mother's deterioration from being an independent professional, a "great healer" [p. 195], to a neurotic hypochondriac? To what degree do you feel that she has caused her own problems?
5. As women, both Conway and her mother encountered barriers against their success. Some were openly acknowledged (i.e., the inequitable wages for men and women offered in the Help Wanted ads). Some were more insidious: unspoken prejudices buried deep within the culture. How do the two women differ in the way they confront these barriers? How, in your opinion, does each woman's education affect her point of view?
6. Conway speculates that had her parents encountered failure earlier in their lives, they might "have learned to bend a little before the harshness of fate" [p. 23]. How does the disastrous drought at Coorain affect the character of Mr. Ker? Conway suggests that his death may have been a suicide. Is she angry about this? Do you feel that she looks on her father's death as a kind of abandonment? If not, why not?
7. Of her early childhood on Coorain, Conway writes that "it was a comprehensible world. One saw visible results from one's labors" [p. 50]. At what point does this comprehensible world turn into an incomprehensible world? What efforts does the young girl make to confer meaning on it? How would you relate the terms "comprehensible" or "incomprehensible" to the society in which you have grown up?
8. Conway writes that in Australia, "people distrusted intellectuals. Australians mocked anyone with `big ideas' and found them specially laughable in a woman" [p. 146]. But the same Australians who mocked "ideas" also had a high regard for academic success. How can you explain this contradiction? How does the isolated position of Australian intellectuals, as depicted by Conway, reflect this truth? Do you find evidence for a similar anti-intellectualism in the United States?
9. Conway experienced the humiliation of being discriminated against as a woman. How did this bring her to more personal realization of the fate of Australia's aboriginal people? What does her parents' use of the nardoo stone found on Coorain signify to her?
10. Mid-century Australia had an overwhelmingly white population, but this was not true of England's colonies and dominions in Asia and Africa. What kind of society does Conway encounter when she visits newly independent Ceylon? How does this visit change her view of the British Empire and of the imperialist credo of white superiority? The credo is not merely racial, but cultural as well. Does Conway's first encounter with the wider world affect her perspective on her own society's culture, history and attitudes?
11. While the Australians willingly fought for the British Empire in both world wars, as Conway describes it, England treated Australia as though it were expendable. Conway knew that "it was time to give up the pretenses of the old British Empire, recognize that we were a Southern Pacific nation, and begin to study and understand the peoples and countries of our part of the globe" [p. 182]. How does Conway relate her own decision to be a historian to her country's quest for its own identity? How does Conway symbolically identify her own life with that of Australia?
12. Conway's story ends with her acceptance of a life of exile, resulting from a series of "thorough and all-encompassing defeats" [p. 236]. Do you find that the narrative of Conway's early life is really a story of defeat? Or could it be seen as a story of success? Conway felt that she had failed in several areas: she had not kept her mother from being unhappy; she was not emotionally equal to the lonely life of running Coorain. But might those have been quixotic battles, impossible to win? Do you feel, as she did, that she turned her back upon her duty?
13. How would you describe The Road from Coorain? Is it a romance, a story of material success, an odyssey, a spiritual or intellectual quest or the story of a conflict between mother and daughter?
14. Conway is deeply concerned with nature and the environment. What is the role of nature in this narrative? How does the Australian landscape of Coorain shape the characters of the human beings who inhabit it? What impact have the settlers had upon the Australian outback, "one of the most delicately balanced environments on the planet" [p. 10]?
BEYOND THE BOOK
1. Research the history of the British Empire. Of what did it consist during the years that Conway lived in Australia? (A good place to start is with James Morris's Pax Britannica trilogy; focus on the last volume and, in the first volumes, the chapters dealing with Australia). How many countries were ruled by England at that time? How different were the societies represented within the Empire? Why did some societies, such as Australia and Canada, remain loyal to Great Britain while others rebelled?
2. Conway talks of Australians, on ANZAC Day, remembering the heroism of their troops at Gallipoli [p. 183]. Gallipoli was a battle in World War I in which many Australians lost their lives. Look up this battle in an encyclopedia or in a history of the First World War. What were the actions of the British leaders and officers who conducted the action? Why might the experience of Gallipoli, as Conway suggests, cause Australia to mistrust and resent Great Britain?
3. Research the nature of aboriginal society. How did the fate of the aborigines resemble that of the American Indians? In what way did their situations differ? Write a short essay comparing the two situations.
4. As a young girl, Conway was greatly impressed when she read T. S. Eliot's long poem The Waste Land: "It was great poetry about a landscape I knew." Can you find an example of poetry or fiction that describes your own landscape and world to your satisfaction? Write a short essay about the work, and what it means in relation to your own world.
5. Three of the books that help Conway in her voyage of self-discovery are The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, and The Positive and Negative Aspects of the Mother Archetype by Carl Jung. Read one of these books. Write an essay about the meaning the book would have had for Conway; and also about what the book has told you about the nature of family life and the importance of independence from the family.
6. Look at an atlas of the world. Who are Australia's closest neighbors? With what countries does she share national interests dictated by geography and security considerations? Now look at the United States. The United States, like Europe, has traditionally identified with Europe. Does this make sense to you, in terms of our geographical position? Who are our closest neighbors?
OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Julia Blackburn, Daisy Bates in the Desert; Jill Ker Conway, True North; Robyn Davidson, Tracks; Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa; George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss; Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table; Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career; Carolyn Heilbrun, Writing a Woman's Life; Elspeth Huxley, The Flame Trees of Thika; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior; Beryl Markham, West With the Night; James V. Marshall, Walkabout; Mervyn John Meggitt, Desert People; James Morris, the Pax Britannica trilogy; Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions; Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own.
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
This teacher's guide was written by Peter Trachtenberg. Peter Trachtenberg has taught writing and literature at the New York University School of Continuing Education, the Johns Hopkins University School of Continuing Education, and the School of Visual Arts.
Copyright © 1994 by VINTAGE BOOKS