The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway

“The Western Plains of New South Wales are grasslands.”

Imagine a desert, dust from eroded topsoil, heat making images like a blurry glass as it bakes the ground.  Succulents dot the landscape like drops of batter on a cookie sheet, while bushes eek out a meagre existence on the landscape.  Earth meets sky, the rays of the sun unrelenting, yet there is life, animals and birds, and what’s more, land, where a settler could come to scratch out a modest existence.  Into this landscape came the parents of the author, the Kers, her father’s investment in 18,000 acres of drought-stricken land taking their every penny.  With no surface water, and only a few clumps of eucalyptus, they began their married life.

Jill Ker, the narrator, was the youngest of three children, with two older brothers named Bob and Barry.  Together they worked on their parents’ farm, Coorain, an Aboriginal word meaning “windy place”.  When the boys departed for boarding school, Jill, was left as the only child on the farm, but her life was filled with meaningful work, and many consolations:

“All in all, what might on the surface appear like a lonely childhood, especially after the departure of my brothers, was one filled with interest, stimulation, and friends.  It lacked other children, and I was seven before I even laid eyes on another female child.  Yet this world gave me most of what we need in life, and gave it generously.  I had the total attention of both my parents, and was secure in the knowledge of being loved.  Better still, I knew that my capacity for work was valued and that my contributions to the work of the property really mattered.  It was a comprehensible world.  One saw visible results from one’s labors, and the lesson of my mother’s garden was a permanent instruction about the way human beings can transform their environment.  My memories of falling asleep at night are to the comfortable sound of my parents’ voices, voices which conveyed in their tones the message that these two people loved and trusted one another ….. It was an idyllic world.”

However, Ker’s contented and peaceful existence was soon to be shattered. Unremitting drought hit the area —- years of it —- and she had to watch the struggle of her parents as this calamity threatened to overwhelm them.  Finally, a tragedy occurred that sent her and her mother from Coorain into the city of Sydney, where Ker finally was able to attend school.  Misfortune still followed at their heels, as Ker watched her mother diminish from a confident, capable woman, to a bitter, dependent widow whose expectations of her daughter were not only unrealistic, but burdensome.  The last part of the book was filled with Ker’s attempt to break free of the domination, and forge her own way, not only as an adult, but as an academic woman in the world of male Australian academia.  When she finally applied for a position in the more liberal United States, Coorain was still in her blood, the attachment to it never waning.

source The Age

Ker uses such lyrical, melodious language when describing Coorain and her childhood there, but upon leaving her home to begin a new life in the city, the narrative becomes more closed and technical and certainly more psychological.  Her struggles with the dominance of her mother and her attempts to carve out an identity as a female scholar become the primary focus and the book loses much of its charm.  Ker is quite forceful in maintaining that academics are the source of her life.  She becomes oddly annoyed with one boyfriend who wishes she would spend time with him, rather than her studies.  It’s only when she meets a man who realizes that he’ll come second in their relationship and supports her in her studies, that she feels she can accept him as a partner.  With the valuable relationships within her own early life, it is puzzling how Ker can put a “thing” before personal relations, but perhaps the tragedies in her life numbed some of her initial healthy human emotions.

On a note of interest, Coorain was still being run as a farm until at least ten years ago.  I found this article, where the recent farmer revealed that as of 2006, the farm had been in the throes of a drought that was the worst in 60 years, causing him to wonder if he could continue.  He did say that Jill Ker Conway still showed an interest in the farm, calling him regularly for updates:  “Once you have lived this life, it is in your blood forever.”

In any case, I’m quite happy to be whizzing through these last biographies.  The initial biographies in this project were often focussed on people — even the semi-reclusive Montaigne had a deep interest in them —-, whereas these last biographies emphasize ambition, personal success, revenge, and have a very empty echo within their pages.  I am not left with a very uplifting feeling.