Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

This is a remarkable little book. And "little" it really isn't. I started reading it thinking I'd just get it out of the way and maybe learn a little on the way. But it really captivated me and I learned a great deal more than I expected.

Years ago I read The Fatal Shore, about the founding of Australia. For years I carried around the unfair assessment of Australia that a colony founded with prisoners and cruel prison wardens, a country where the native population was wiped out and the British rule prevailed, was not a country I liked. It's funny, considering the parallels to my own country.

Over time, though, I got over it. It's another country with its own identity, secrets, wonders. Perhaps this memoir would give me a different perspective.

Jill begins life in the bush. She is born in 1934 in the back country of Australia to an ambitious and hard-working family, with two older brothers, a determined father, and a hard-working, intensely capable mother. Her mother oversees the running of the house on the sheep ranch, keeping everything shining and running and developing a thriving garden, full of vegetables and beautiful flowers.

Initially the sheep ranch is successful and improvements are gradually made. Jill becomes a hardworking child who likes working on the vast ranch with her father and his workers. Having been born on the ranch she does not realize how the ranch, the open spaces, the incredible quiet were unique in Australia. She accepts the requirement that she not cry, that she be stoic in the face of adversity. At the same time she is well aware that she is loved by both parents and valued fully. At this point I thought, "a functional family!" Yes, difficult times, hard times, but love and caring and support.

But then times change. A drought takes over the land, throwing the family and all other similar families into turmoil, distress, near-ruin. Sheep die and the smell of rotting bodies takes over Jill's memories of the land. In time she is more than ready to leave Coorain, the ranch. A terrible incident leads to the family moving to Sydney to ride it out.

Once settled in a small house in Sydney, Jill is sent to a private school that emphasises academics yet also accepts many children formerly from the bush. Quiet and reserved, she has a hard time initially fitting in but eventually her hard work and determination win her a solid place and a chance for a university education.

Jill enters the University of Sydney. She has always excelled at working hard and in spite of some setbacks continues to do so here. She becomes a true academic, a scholar in the history of Australia.

It is during her time here that Jill starts to make connections in her life. She starts to see a wider world and puts things in place that had not occurred to her before. She recognizes the second-place status women held at the time and for the first time sees the role aborigines have been forced to play for so long. She breaks away from her lifelong worldview - that of a colonial beholden to Britain. She has been raised to speak and behave more as a British citizen than an Australian. As she discovers more about her land, its citizens, and writers both Australian and not, Jill realizes that her beloved land is rarely recognized in its own right, for itself.

In addition to realizing where Australia fits in the world, Jill explores the role of women and other disenfranchised persons. She rises in the academic world, but constantly feels a pull from her mother. Her mother, the capable, strong, personable woman who handled everything in the bush, had become increasingly dependent on her daughter and less capable of caring for herself. Jill, for her part, felt suffocated and incapable of continuing to live with her mother.

The book is in large part an exploration of the relationship between the two. It is so much more, ultimately, yet this relationship is at the heart of it.

I found it a fascinating, deep, emotional account that explores one life but also the life of a country I did not know much about at all.

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