The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway


This 1989 autobiography tells the story of a truly rare person, a brilliant academic born in Australia who came to the US to study when she was 25. She was the first woman to be president of Smith College. This is the story of her childhood on the family’s 32,000-acre sheep station in western New South Wales, her teenage years in Sydney, and college years at the University of Sydney. Her name came up by chance during a grocery-store chat with someone I worked with years ago. Shortly after that, I heard interviews with Terry Gross that were replayed after she died this spring.

Her parents acquired the property because her father was a veteran of the First World War; the two of them made a success of the enterprise through years of hard work, good decisions, and great privations. Jill is the third child and in the time of her childhood, their work was paying off. Then a multi-year drought combined with no access to transportation and a shortage of manpower during World War II resulted in the death of all the sheep. When she was 11, her father died, and she and her mother moved to Sydney. Though they never lived as a family again at Coorain, it became wildly successful, probably through her mother’s knowledge and skill, even applied from a great distance.

As a student of history, she came to understand that the connection to Britain, the Australian vision of Britain as the homeland, was wrong-headed. Australia needed to see itself as a Southern Pacific nation and that economic ties to Britain were eroding. She began to see the ANZAC celebrations of the bravery of troops at Gallipoli differently, “Colonial troops had been sent on an ill-conceived and bungled mission by a callous British government which could afford to run the risk with troops whose parents, wives, and children were not voters at home.” I was glad to see this, given my surprise at the take expressed by Alan Moorehead quoted in a book I read by Thornton McCamish.

In her early twenties she regularly drove from Sydney to Coorain, about 500 miles away. She passed through relatively lush countryside, and then through scrub that produced wheat successfully in good years, but only heartbreak in the dry years. Great Australian painting recorded the blazing sun, red dust, and broken hearts in the early years and she wondered why the fertile slopes were not celebrated. She noted defeated figures like Ned Kelly and poor farmers predominated in Australia rather than triumphant figures such as Daniel Boone or Buffalo Bill. She concluded it involved how the first settlers encountered the landscape. I would say that a bleak outlook was not unreasonable. Though American settlers had plenty of heartbreak, a much greater percentage of the land in North America supported subsistence farming from the outset. Australia as a dumping ground for city-dwelling criminals surely echoed through the generations, though the later Australians tried to suppress that memory. It seems to me the Ned Kelly story would resonate.

She and two men friends graduated at the top of their class at the University and the three of them applied for prestigious work in the foreign service in Canberra. The two men were accepted into the program while she was rejected for being “too good looking” and “too intellectually aggressive.” She came to believe that to be successful she needed to leave Australia; she applied to graduate school at Harvard because many of the historians she most admired taught there.

I loved and admired this book and am looking forward to reading True North, the next in her autobiographical series.

Jill Ker Conway, The Road to Coorain, Knopf, 1989, 238 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.



  • Great review Charlotte. Made me want to read it again. I read it in 1990. When I had a quick look for my obituary post, I read just a bit of her comments on history. I’d love to read them again given how thinking about Australian history has gone since then. Your brief summary though, and own comments on that, was helpful … and thoughtful. I often think about the differences between US and Aus, given our similar ages as western nations. Geography is one cause, despite our our similar size, but our very different origins – settlers fleeing persecution vs convicts – must account for a lot. Perhaps our similarities are more surprising!?

    I’m taking her third memoir away with me this week, the one I haven’t read, but ma not get to it. We’ll see.

    • Thanks for your comments. Of course I see Australian history as expressed in literature through the lens of another former colony of Britain. I think the similarities are many, though the geography dictates differences. I have always noticed what I see as the Wild West myth at work in both cultures. The reduced influence of the European class culture seems to be shared. The impact on the indigenous populations is similar; then the US has the additional horror of slavery that affects us so severely. A big topic, but fun to think about.


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