The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

Coorain

Rereading this bestselling 1989 memoir reminds me of why I enjoyed it so much back then. Conway gives us the opportunity to experience a childhood on a ranch in the Australian outback. She describes the austere beauty of the landscape, the desperate need for rain, the solitude for herself and her parents.

With no children besides her two older brothers within a hundred miles, she relies on her imagination and books for company. Helping out with the ranch work, she learns self-sufficiency and a practical grasp of what’s needed in the world. It is this combination of imagination and practicality that sends her into the world in search of education and greater understanding, a journey that will make her president of Smith College one day.

On this reading, I found myself fascinated with her parents in a way I hadn’t been before. She describes them as risk-takers, purchasing the land in 1929, not knowing that the drought was not seasonal but would become “legendary”, not knowing that the Depression was about to start in a few months. The ranch was her father’s dream, but the places he’d worked after returning from the horrors of the Great War were in a part of the country with a more forgiving landscape.

Her mother had grown up in a lush country town and enjoyed her career as a nurse, actually running her own country hospital. Yet she gave all this up to go with her new husband to the new home they named Coorain, an aboriginal word meaning “windy place”.

My father, being a westerner, born into that profound peace and silence, felt the need for it like an addiction to a powerful drug. Here, pressed into the earth by the weight of that enormous sky, there is real peace. To those who know it, the annihilation of the self, subsumed into the vast emptiness of nature, is akin to a religious experience. We children grew up to know it and seek it as our father before us. What was social and sensory deprivation for the stranger was the earth and sky that made us what we were. For my mother, the emptiness was disorienting, and the loneliness and silence a daily torment of existential dread.

Had she known how to tell directions she would have walked her way to human voices.

Despite all that, her mother is a figure of strength in Conway’s childhood, facing each new setback with courage and action. Her mother encourages Conway to read by asking her to read aloud while her mother works at daily chores, made more onerous by the lack of electricity and running water. Cooking is done on a wood stove even in the brutal heat of summer. Her mother has to be ready to treat snakebite or help fight bushfires.

But three years after the death of Conway’s father, she and her mother move to Sydney, leaving a good manager to run the ranch. There, her mother’s drive has no outlet and she becomes more and more controlling. Weighed down by grief and anger—she sometimes rages at strange men for daring to be alive when her beloved husband is dead—she begins drinking and her moods become unpredictable. Conway takes refuge in her schooling.

No matter where she travels, Conway never loses her love of her native landscape, though as she learns more, she becomes more critical about the treatment of aboriginal peoples and the ambiguous morality of land ownership.

It’s a fascinating story of an earlier time, a place and a culture foreign to me, and yet Conway’s experience was like mine in so many ways. My book club all raved about the book, finding Conway’s prose beautiful to read and her life inspirational. We want more of this, they said.

Have you been inspired by a memoir about a woman overcoming obstacles, both internal and external, and going on to accomplish great things in the world?

The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton

Morton

It being the end of summer, I went in search of a real vacation read. Not that I was going away, but I did have a week off from grandchild babysitting duties. I wasn’t looking for a beach read; most of my vacations end up in a cabin in the woods or a footpath in the Cotswolds. Instead I wanted to immerse myself in a big, fat, multi-generational novel, preferably set in the UK.

I found it in The Forgotten Garden. As the story opens, it is 1913 and a small girl is hiding on a ship on the Thames, as instructed by “the lady”. The ship casts off from its London dock to cries of “Bon voyage”, and the girl leaves her hiding place to follow a group of children. Later, a fall on the ship has damages her memory, so she no longer remembers her name or any other details of her former life.

She fetches up in Brisbane, Australia, where she is adopted by the harbormaster and his wife. As an adult Nell tries to discover how she came to be left alone on the boat and why a book of fairy tales was packed in her small suitcase. After Nell’s death her granddaughter Cassandra takes up the search, following Nell’s footsteps to Blackhurst Manor on the coast of Cornwall, ancestral home of the Mountrachet family.

I’d previously read and enjoyed Morton’s The Lake House, impressed by how well she moved back and forth in time without losing me—and I’m a notoriously easily confused reader.

Here Morton doubles down by using, not just multiple time periods but also multiple narrative points of view (POVs). Multiple POVs have proliferated lately, having the cachet of seeming modern. Many writers have tried their hand at using them. Most fail.

At least in my opinion—remember I’m easily confused. Sometimes it seems to me a lazy way of writing. It is a challenge to bring out all of a story’s incidents and information if you are confined to only one character’s perceptions. I think some authors try to get around that by moving from one character’s head to another, instead of finding more creative solutions.

That’s not what’s happening here. I should have been lost a hundred times over as we move between Nell, Cassandra, Rose Mountrachet, and Eliza, the author of the fairy tales. We jump around in time between 1900 when Eliza was a child, 1907, 1913, 1930, 1975-1976, and 2005 when Cassandra flies from Australia to England. We have letters and scrapbooks and journals. We even have some of the fairy tales.

And it all works. It’s not just that Morton labels each chapter with place and date. It’s not just that we have different characters associated with the different time frames to help ground us. Nor is it just that she pays attention to transitions, so for example at the end of one chapter Cassandra in 2005 is examining a legal document, while the next chapter starts in 1975 with Nell checking her passport and tickets.

It’s that Morton has carefully constructed her story so that whatever the date and POV, the line of the story continues. Thus, just as Nell in 1975 begins to learn about Eliza’s early life and that she is the author of the fairy tales, we go to 1900 where Eliza is watching the busy life of London’s streets through a chink in the bricks and making up stories about the people she sees. If I was unsurprised by the ending, I was at least not disappointed.

It’s always interesting to me as a writer to go back, after my gloriously immersive first read, and see how the author has handled releasing information. It’s a tricky balance. You want the reader on the edge of their chairs, but not so frustrated that they throw the book across the room. So you have to reveal information fairly regularly while also holding some back. One good mantra is: every time you answer a question in the reader’s mind, create a new one.

All of the characters, even minor ones, are well-drawn and memorable. The settings—ship, slums, estate, cottages, gardens—are gorgeously done. The letters and other ephemera add to the verisimilitude of the story and give us other voices. To my surprise, the fairy tales also work well, adding emotional depth to the story as the seeds planted by their images flower. In fact, the language throughout is particularly lovely: poetic without being distractingly so. There are some really gorgeous turns of phrase here, some haunting images.

All in all, Morton’s book is a perfect vacation read.

What did you read on your summer vacation?