Beauty in the Bleak and Harsh {Book Club}

Calling all readers: if you are looking for a summer reading program to join in, I’m hosting one because I couldn’t find a good one to join :). You can read about it here and all are welcome.

When I’m taking notes as I read a book, I usually do just that: take notes on the book. For The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conwayhowever, I wrote at the top of my notes:

“I started reading this late Friday afternoon. It was cold and I was out of sorts.  I wanted to connect with you, so I started our next book.”

I have no idea what state of mind, heart, or weather you began reading The Road from Coorain, but I bet it met you where you were.

If you haven’t had a chance yet to pick it up, do. Amazon describes the part we read for today (Chapters one and two) this way:

“Jill Ker Conway 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.”

I remember when I first went to the field in my mid-to-late-twenties. It was so disorienting, not to be on “the other side of the world,” but to have no context. To go from being known to having absolutely no one in my life who knew nothing outside of what I told them. What I love about this memoir is the way we are introduced to Ker Conway by first getting to know her context.

Ker Conway backs up and spends a chapter letting us taste and see the world in Western Australia she was born into. We got to know her environment before we got to know her.

I do not tend to be drawn to lengthy descriptions of places. I’ll be honest, I wish I were. Somehow it seems that “deep” people, appreciate them more than I do (which feeds the lie that I am “not deep,” whatever that means!). That being said, I was drawn to Ker Conway’s descriptions of Western Australia in the 1930s, so much so, I wanted to learn more—a sign of good writing!

How about this line: “On the plains, the earth meets the sky in a sharp black line so regular that it seems as though drawn by a creator interested more in geometry than the hills and valleys of the Old Testament.”

Or how about this: “The bush ethos which grew up from making a virtue out of loneliness and hardship built on the stoic virtues of convict Australia. Settled life and domesticity were soft and demoralizing. A ‘real man’ despised com oft tan scorned the expression of emotion.” A few paragraphs later she went on to describe the ideal woman as one who was a good manager. As I read these pages, it made me wonder what we still make virtues out of. I know historically people in our line of work were revered for “suffering.” And there is still plenty of suffering.

But when is suffering or hardships or loneliness part of the call and when have they been turned into false virtues?

By the end of chapter one I wrote in my notes: Poetic Writing—beautiful capturing of the sense of bleakness and harshness of life.

Chapter two, entitled Coorain, provides the background of her parents, their personalities, and how they met and married. Several points reminded me of our lives.

  • Coming home from WWI her father did not qualify for a land grant because he was single. Last week I was talking with a man in his mid-20s and he was paid considerably less than other married men at the church they serve in. Why? “Because you don’t have to be a provider for your family.” Though he is more qualified and educated than his married friend who is earning 2.5 times what my friend is. In ministry, in this day and age, it still “rankles,” as it did Mr. Ker.
  • Her mom being so far from medical care! As a trained nurse, she had it both better than and worse than others in her position. On the one hand, Mrs. Ker could provide some medical care for her family. But she was probably more aware of what they didn’t have than someone (like me) who would be clueless.
  • Having to make sacrifices in her career for marriage and living in such an isolated place.

And then to picture Jill, age seven, out riding a horse and helping her dad with the animals. I have fond memories as a child helping my dad with tasks—painting, gardening, doing things around the house—but nothing quite like this! Those of you raised in rural areas, what sort of odd jobs or responsibilities did you have?

I think understanding Jill Ker Conway’s context will help us interpret her story as it unfolds. How have you helped others on the field know your context?

See you in the comments!


P.S. Reading plan for next week and June


  1. Ruth May 29, 2017

    The first chapter is so striking! I’m not generally drawn to really long descriptions, either, but the writing is so good. I liked this sentence: “In a good season, if the eyes are turned to the earth on those plains, they see a tapestry of delicate life–not the luxuriant design of a book of hours by any means, but a tapestry nonetheless, designed by a spare modern artist.” Starting from the description of the environment also reminds me of Chinese short stories (and probably novels, but my Chinese isn’t that good), which often start from the environment and slowly narrow in on the main character or conflict.

    I think that your question about suffering is a really good one. I was talking with someone a couple months ago who is based in the U.S. but travels probably 8-10 weeks a year to a variety of countries. Some groups have declined to support him because “he doesn’t suffer enough.” His job has so much travel, so much sleeping in strange hotel rooms, so many long flights, that I don’t think I would want it. But to those leaders serving in one church for a long time, it looks like an exciting, glamorous life to get to go all sorts of interesting places. I’ve also wondered it about myself, because my life is relatively easy. There are annoyances (like how I have to remember to move the wash machine drain pipe and put it into the shower so the water can drain, otherwise it floods my bathroom and dining room, which I know because I’ve done it *twice*), but that isn’t really suffering. There are other pressures living here, but it isn’t the sort of suffering we often consider a virtue.

  2. M'Lynn May 31, 2017

    You’ve asked so many good questions here I think I could write more than 1000 words in response. But I’m thumb typing on my phone, so maybe not!

    “But when is suffering or hardships or loneliness part of the call and when have they been turned into false virtues?”
    This question is big. I feel like we could sit around and discuss this for HOURS because anyone who has gone to the field has suffered hardship or loneliness in some way (whether they admit it or not). Or maybe others haven’t suffered until they got back! Either way…It seems to be part of the deal. But, it was part of Paul’s deal, too. (Acts 9:16) “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” I think it comes down to this: are you suffering because God has placed you in the refiner’s fire and hasn’t taken you out yet, or have you put yourself there and stubbornly refused to get out even though you’re burnt to a crisp? If your suffering is God ordained, continue with endurance through Holy Spirit strength! The best answer to the question comes from the author herself *spoiler alert* skipping ahead to a paragraph in Ch 9, p.230

    “I wasn’t nearly tough enough to stay around in an emotional climate more desolate than any drought I’d ever seen. I wasn’t going to fight anymore. I was going to admit defeat, turn tail, run for cover. My parents, each in his or her own way, had spent the good things in their lives prodigal and had not been careful about harvesting and cherishing the experiences that nourish hope. I was going to be different. I was going to be life-affirming from now on, grateful to have been born, not profilgate in risking my life for the sake of the panache of it, not all too ready to embrace a hostile fate.”

    All I know is that God is altogether different and doesn’t fit into our cute equations. But “drought” is always an invitation to seek him and know him more. The author seems to say… Don’t seek out suffering for suffering’s sake, but if it comes, live through it with an attitude that affirms life and be grateful to be alive!

    About one of your other questions, Amy: I grew up on a farm. I think my reaction to the young girl riding fences all alone was different than yours as I’ve heard my Dad talk about being put on the tractor “out yonder” as 6 year old…But he says he was watched from the house, so it wasn’t out as far as she went! But…i was like “oh, yeah. Of course she’d be out there if her dad couldn’t” I have some hilarious memories of being out in the cotton field with my sister at the age of 9. We were supposed to chop weeds, but never did work that hard! We also helped drive the pickup while dad loaded pipes to “change water” during summer irrigation (it would take another blog post to fully explain this). I don’t think he really needed our help that much, but I’m always thankful he brought us along!

  3. sarah May 31, 2017

    I’m like a weird Australia fan girl ( I celebrate Australia Day every year, despite never having been there), so I was already predisposed to like this book. But, her writing totally seals the deal. So interesting, picturesque and lucid. I also loved the line about “a creator interested more in geometry than the hills and valleys of the Old Testament.”

    I think your question about suffering turning into a false virtue is continually relevant and needs to be discussed regularly… but, I’m going to abandon it in favor of your other question: How have you helped others on the field know your context? This is the one kind of kicking my butt right now. I can’t seem to find a condensed version of really just my last 5 years, so I end up defaulting to something so vague that I come off sounding standoffish or just weird. But, to tell the whole tale takes a while and just feels exhausting and so vulnerable. Still, I’m trying to tell it when I think it’ll really count- to people I foresee might be in my life a while or to people that seem like they could use a story full of loss and trials but that the Lord’s great goodness wins out in the end.
    Thanks for asking a question that is pushing me to consider how I can do a better job of letting people in during this new season!

    1. sarah May 31, 2017

      Whoooaaa!!! Thanks for sharing your context, M’Lynn! That supercell and the lightning running through it were awesome!! And, it’s such a perfect image for the quote.

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