Compartments of our Lives {Book Club}

Before we get to our discussion of Chapters 6 and 7 in The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway, I am both excited and nervous to share I’ve published Love, Amy: An Accidental Memoir Told in Newsletters from China. Because you were so lovely about my first book, I thought you might also be interested in the backstory.

In today’s section, Jill has to navigate the terrain of her brother’s tragic death and her schooling all the while also managing her mom.

As I’ve read this book, I’ve been wondering how much to let a time period be what it was without expecting more than it can offer. In other words, much about Jill’s childhood and experiences sadden and annoy me. It is not right that she had to take on so much emotional support for her mom, she was, after all, THE CHILD.

And yet, I also don’t feel quite comfortable sitting in 2017 and looking back at 1940s and 1950s Australia and wonder why they all didn’t do it better. And by “it” I mean everything :).

It’s interesting to look at how birth order, gender, and personality influence both Barry and Jill—both to positives and negatives. I wonder how it might have been different if the girl had been the middle child, and therefore older when Bob died, leaving a younger brother at home. Or how being “smart” meant that Jill’s way of service to the family was through academics, while Barry’s was through working at Coorain.

These two chapters had a strong theme of compartmentalization, meaning that people had parts to them they were able to keep separate, at times to their benefit and at other times to their detriment.

For instance, in talking about Bob’s death, “Just as with our departure from Coorain, my consciousness had retreated to a great distance. It was hard to bring it back too early unless I was concentrating every energy on some difficult intellectual effort.” (p. 121) This reminded me of previous discussions we’ve had about the soul traveling by horseback while our bodies often travel faster.

Or: “I was amazed at my mother’s strength and energy, her directness and readiness to face hard things. She seemed so unlike the grief-paralyzed woman of a few months ago. Later I found her in her room weeping, and realized that it was her professional self which had been so strong. Whenever it was called upon she could do anything. Without it she was a different person.” (p. 127)

Where do you notice different sides within yourself?

“I knew my mother’s gifts came at a considerable price. They might seem to be freely given, but there would come a time afterwards when they had to be earned.” (p. 135).

Finally, all the ways that Jill had to function separately at school and at home. In one environment she could be more a kid or young woman her age, in the other she was the adult.

Another theme in this section was the of privilege and awareness of a larger world story. Traveling to India challenged Jill’s religious and political notions. “Seeing these remains was an unexpected culture shock which meant that Europe could never seem ‘old’ again.” (133) And when both Jill and Barry would visit Coorain and those who lived there, there was a painful—to them—sense of being stuck in the isolation of the place.

But privilege can’t stop all suffering. It was heartbreaking to see Jill overlooked for a position because she was too beautiful and would get married within a year (so it was believed). Though this quote occurred a few pages before, I like how it summarized her situation: “I was headed for a traumatic confrontation between ambition, love, and duty.” (p. 187).

This was a rich section, as Jill had to navigate death, privilege, schooling, her ailing mom, and her own skills and ambition. What stood out to you? What would you like to discuss—even if only triggered by reading this section. I understand this is a rather public forum, but if you have very overbearing parents, what has that experience been like for you? You can post anonymously — you can still love them deeply!!

See you in the comments,


P.S. Reading plan for June


  1. Kristi June 21, 2017

    Amy – I appreciate that you brought up the theme of compartmentalization. It is poignant to see Jill struggling to balance the expectations of various people in her life such as her mother, teachers, peers, or the society at large. And, in the midst of that, trying to figure out who she is and what place she has in the world and the various cultures that influence her world. it seems that she really tries to balance the expectations even when it appears that she is a completely different person at home and at school. This facade seems to come crashing down when her mother goes to Coorain and hears remotely of her parties and time with friends, but perhaps ends up giving her more freedom to be honest about her habits when she proves that she can do well in school and be social at the same time.

    It is really interesting to read about the various experiences and perspectives that Jill has on religion during this period – including the seances and psychic society she attends with her mother, her rational/agnostic academic environment, and gradually her Catholic friends and remembering her father’s Catholic faith. One of my favorite quotes from this section was where she remembered her father’s admonition about what to do if lost in the bush. ‘”Don’t panic and rush about,” he said, “Stay in the shade, and wait for the night sky. You’ll be able to see the Southern Cross, and you can navigate by that.”‘ As a Christian, God plays a big part in being that source for navigating when life gets uncertain. I appreciate reading Jill’s life experience and seeing the various people or things she looks to for guidance or to chart her course. She had a really hard road finding her direction in life, and I’m impressed so far at how she managed without more floundering!

  2. sarah June 27, 2017

    This is kind of a totally random thought after being out of touch for a couple weeks, but as I was reading this post, I was struck by the weird similarity between Jill’s mom’s decline after her father’s death and Amos’s mom’s decline after Abner’s death in Shiloh. I realize that one was real life and one was fictional. But, in both stories, the death of the father resulted in the mother placing pretty unreasonable expectations on the kids for them to take care of her.
    And, in both stories, the childhood was pretty idyllic – until tragedy struck and it all fell apart.
    It’s a good reminder of James telling us that it’s true and pure to the Father when we are with orphans and widows in their affliction. It’s the Father’s heart to care for them. And we see the goodness of when people are with orphans and widows in their affliction in Jill’s neighbor Angus. I love that at the end of the book, Jill goes back to see Angus before she leaves Australia, and he’s still supportive of her, he’s still looking out for her good.

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