Jill Ker Conway: “The Road from Coorain”

The Road from Coorain traces the unlikely story of young Jill Ker’s journey from a sheep station in the western grasslands of New South Wales, Australia, to the position of president of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Journeys of such epic proportions are rare even for the increasingly ubiquitous genre of memoir. But the young Jill – hemmed in by the extreme drudgery of sheep farming, the tedium of the dry, parched landscape of the Australian outback, and later by the emotional demands of her widowed mother, who had relocated the family to Sydney – dreams big dreams. From the family’s 30,000-acre property known as Coorain, a place so isolated that she was seven before she saw another girl child, Jill Ker travels first with her family to Sydney, then on her own to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to earn a PhD at Harvard University.

Though Jill Ker Conway’s most public triumph comes in her becoming the first woman to be named president of Smith College (arguably the most prestigious women’s college in the world), this memoir – the first of a trilogy – takes us back to her childhood, paints for us the picture of a life limited by her family circumstances, including her father’s death at Coorain when young Jill is just ten, and limited as well by the Australian society of the 1950s, a world that does not value women’s contributions.

Conway went on to write two other memoirs – True North and A Woman’s Education – which, taken together, tell the story of her marriage to Canadian professor John Conway and her singular accomplishments in higher education. A good introduction to these two memoirs, especially A Woman’s Education, can be found in Harvard Magazine.

Both True North and A Woman’s Education are satisfying reading indeed, particularly for those readers who get swept up by The Road from Coorain and want to know how it all turned out for the young Jill Ker.

But it is The Road from Coorain that stays with the reader most powerfully. In this stark but also lyric memoir, Conway brings us into her childhood on Coorain, the name coming from the Aboriginal word for “windy place.” She offers a rare glimpse into a way of life in Australia that few hardy souls have experienced – and a life that few have transcended so remarkably.

The New York Times review of the memoir’s publication in 1989 is insightful. If you want to dip your toe into The Road from Coorain, you can read an excerpt from the book’s opening. But you’ll be hooked – believe me – so you’ll eventually want to get your hands on the book itself.

Watch:Watch this five-minute clip from the Australian telefeature based on Jill Ker Conway’s memoir The Road from Coorain. Then watch a seventeen-minute video interview conducted in 2011 with Conway.