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She 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 ...
She 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, and who, upon her husband's sudden death when Jill was ten, began to slide — bereft of the partnership of work and love that had so utterly fulfilled her — into depression and dependency.
We see Jill, staggered by the loss of her father, catapulted to what seemed another planet — the suburban Sydney of the 1950s and its crowded, noisy, cliquish school life. Then the heady excitement of the University, but with it a yet more demanding course of lessons — Jill embracing new ideas, new possibilities, while at the same time trying to be mother to her mother and resenting it, escaping into drink,pulling herself back, striking a balance. We see her slowly gaining strength, coming into her own emotionally and intellectually -and beginning the joyous love affair that gave wings to her newfound self.
Worlds away from Coorain, in America, Jill Conway became a historian and the first woman president of Smith College. Her story of Coorain and the road from Coorain startles by its passion and evocative power, by its understanding of the ways in which a total, deep-rooted commitment to place — or to a dream — can at once liberate and imprison. It is a story of childhood as both Eden and anguish, and of growing up as a journey toward the difficult life of the free.
From the shelter of a protective family to the lessons of tragedy and independence this is an indelible portrait of a remarkable woman's life.
THE WESTERN PLAINS of New South Wales are grasslands. Their vast expanse flows for many hundreds of miles beyond the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee rivers until the desert takes over and sweeps inland to the dead heart of the continent. 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. What grows there hugs the earth firmly with its extended system of roots above which the plant life is delicate but determined. After rain there is an explosion of growth. Nut-flavored green grass puts up the thinnest of green spears. Wild grains appear, grains which develop bleached gold ears as they ripen. Purple desert peas weave through the green and gold, and bright yellow bachelor's buttons cover acres at a time, like fields planted with mustard. Closest to the earth is trefoil clover, whose tiny, vivid green leaves and bright flowers creep along the ground in spring, to be replaced by a harvest of seed-filled burrs in autumn-burrs which store within them the energy of the sun as concentrated protein. At the edges of pans of clay, where the topsoil has eroded, live waxy succulents bearing bright pink and purple blooms, spreading like splashes of paint dropped in widening circles on the earth.
Above the plants that creep across the ground are the bushes, which grow wherever an indentation in the earth, scarcely visible to the eye, allows for the concentration of more moisture from the dew and the reluctant rain. There is the ever-present round mound of prickly weed, which begins its life a strong acid green with hints of yellow, and then is burnt by the sun or the frost to a pale whitish yellow. As it ages, its root system weakens so that on windy days the wind will pick it out of the earth and roll it slowly and majestically about like whirling suns in a Van Gogh painting. Where the soil contains limestone, stronger bushes grow, sometimes two to three feet high, with the delicate narrow-leaved foliage of arid climates, bluish green and dusty grey in color, perfectly adapted to resist the drying sun. Where the soil is less porous and water will lie for a while after rain, comes the annual saltbush, a miraculous silvery-grey plant which stores its own water in small balloonlike round leaves and thrives long after the rains have vanished. Its sterner perennial cousin, which resembles sagebrush, rises on woody branches and rides out the strongest wind.
Very occasionally, where a submerged watercourse rises a little nearer the surface of the earth, a group of eucalyptus trees will cluster. Worn and gnarled by wind and lack of moisture, they rise up on the horizon so dramatically they appear like an assemblage of local deities. Because heat and mirages make them float in the air, they seem from the distance like surfers endlessly riding the plains above a silvery wave. The ocean they ride is blue-grey, silver, green, yellow, scarlet, and bleached gold, highlighting the red clay tones of the earth to provide a rich palette illuminated by brilliant sunshine, or on grey days a subdued blending of tones like those observed on a calm sea.
The creatures that inhabit this earth carry its colors in their feathers, fur, or scales. Among its largest denizens are emus, six-foot-high flightless birds with dun-grey feathers and tiny wings, and kangaroos. Kangaroos, like emus, are silent creatures, two to eight feet tall, and ranging in color from the gentlest dove-grey to a rich red-brown. Both species blend with their native earth so well that one can be almost upon them before recognizing the familiar shape. The fur of the wild dogs has the familiar yellow of the sunbaked clay, and the reptiles, snakes and goannas, look like the earth in shadow. All tread on the fragile habitat with padded paws and claws which leave the roots of grass intact.
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. Human purposes are dwarfed by such a blank horizon. When we see it from an island in a vast ocean we know we are resting in shelter. On the plains, the horizon is always with us and there is no retreating from it. Its blankness travels with our every step and waits for us at every point of the compass. Because we have very few reference points on the spare earth, we seem to creep over it, one tiny point of consciousness between the empty earth and the overarching sky. Because of the flatness, contrasts are in a strange scale. A scarlet sunset will highlight grey-yellow tussocks of grass as though they were trees. Thunderclouds will mount thousands of feet above one stunted tree in the foreground. A horseback rider on the horizon will seem to rise up and emerge from the clouds. While the patterns of the earth are in small scale, akin to complex needlepoint on a vast tapestry, the sky is all drama. Cumulus clouds pile up over the center of vast continental spaces, and the wind moves them at dramatic pace along the horizon or over our heads. The ever-present red dust of a dry earth hangs in the air and turns all the colors from yellow through orange and red to purple on and off as the clouds bend and refract the light. Sunrise and sunset make up in drama for the fact that there are so few songbirds in that part of the bush. At sunrise, great shafts of gold precede the baroque sunburst. At sunset, the cumulus ranges through the shades of a Turner seascape before the sun dives below the earth leaving no afterglow, but at the horizon, tongues of fire.
Except for the bush canary and the magpie, the birds of this firmament court without the songs of the northern forest. Most are parrots, with the vivid colors and rasping sounds of the species. At sunset, rosella parrots, a glorious rosy pink, will settle on trees and appear to turn them scarlet. Magpies, large black and white birds, with a call close to song, mark the sunrise, but the rest of the day is the preserve of the crows, and the whistle of the hawk and the golden eagle. The most startling sound is the ribald laughter of the kookaburra, a species of kingfisher, whose call resembles demonic laughter. It is hard to imagine a kookaburra feeding St. Jerome or accompanying St. Francis. They belong to a physical and spiritual landscape which is outside the imagination of the Christian West.
The primal force of the sun shapes the environment. With the wind and the sand it bakes and cleanses all signs of decay. There is no cleansing by water. The rivers flow beneath the earth, and rain falls too rarely. In the recurring cycles of drought the sand and dust flow like water, and like the floods of other climates they engulf all that lies in their path. Painters find it hard to capture the shimmer of that warm red earth dancing in the brilliant light, and to record at the same time the subtle greens and greys of the plants and trees. Europeans were puzzled by the climate and vegetation, because the native eucalyptus trees were not deciduous. The physical blast of the sun in hot dry summers brought plants to dormancy. Slow growth followed in autumn, and a burst of vigorous growth after the brief winter rainy season. Summer was a time of endurance for all forms of life as moisture ebbed away and the earth was scorched. Winter days were like summer in a northern climate, and spring meant the onset of unbroken sunshine. On the plains, several winters might go by without a rainy season, and every twenty years or so the rain might vanish for a decade at a time. When that happened, the sun was needed to cleanse the bones of dead creatures, for the death toll was immense.
The oldest known humans on the continent left their bones on the western plains. Nomadic peoples hunted over the land as long as forty thousand years ago. They and their progeny left behind the blackened stones of ovens, and the hollowed flat pieces of granite they carried from great distances to grind the native nardoo grain. Their way of life persisted until white settlers came by bullock wagon, one hundred and thirty years ago, to take possession of the land. They came to graze their flocks of sharp-hooved sheep and cattle, hoping to make the land yield wealth. Other great inland grasslands in Argentina, South Africa, or North America were settled by pastoralists and ranchers who used forced labor: Indian peons, Bantus, or West African slaves. On Australia's great plains there were no settled native people to enslave. The settlers moved onto the plains long after the abandonment of transportation from Great Britain, the last form of forced labor available in the Antipodes. As a result, the way of life that grew up for white settlers was unique.
A man could buy the government leasehold for hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland at a modest price if he settled the land and undertook to develop it. Others, beyond the reach of government scrutiny, simply squatted with their flocks on likely-looking land. The scale of each holding was beyond European dreams of avarice. Each settler could look out to the vacant horizon knowing that all he saw was his. To graze the unfenced land required a population of sheepherders, or, as they came to be called, boundary riders. A settler would need twelve to fifteen hands for his several hundred thousand acres, but most would live out on the "run" (sheep run) at least a day's ride from the main settlement. The hands were solitary males, a freewheeling rural proletariat, antisocial, and unconcerned with comfort or the domestic pleasures. Their leisure went in drink and gambling, and their days in a routine of lonely and backbreaking work. The main house would be spare and simple also, its roof of iron and its walls of timber laboriously transported from the coast. The garden would be primitive and the boss's recreations would be little different from his hands'. If he shared his life with a wife and children, they lived marginally on the edge of his world of male activity. There was no rain for orchards, no water for vegetable gardens, and no society for entertaining. Women worked over wood stoves in 100 degree heat and heated water for laundry over an open fire. There was little room for the culinary arts, because everyone's diet was mutton and unleavened bread, strong black tea, and spirits. The ratio of women to men was as distorted in this wave of settlement as anywhere in the settlement of the New World.
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 comfort and scorned the expression of emotion. The important things in life were hard work, self-sufficiency, physical endurance, and loyalty to one's male friends, one's "mates." Knowledge about nature, the care of animals, practical mechanics was respected, but speculation and the world of ideas were signs of softness and impracticality. Religion and belief in a benevolent deity were foolish because daily life demonstrated beyond doubt that the universe was hostile. The weather, the fates, the bank that held the mortgage, bushfires-disaster in some form-would get a man in the end. When disaster struck what mattered was unflinching courage and the refusal to consider despair.
Very few women could stand the isolation. When a settler prospered, his wife and children moved to a distant but comfortable rural town, where there were schools for the children and companionship for their mother. If he did not prosper, she was likely to be overwhelmed by loneliness. Nothing interrupted the relentless routine of hard labor, the anxiety of illness far from hope of help, the certainty of enervating summer heat, frosty winter cold, and the pervasive anxiety of disaster looming. Disaster could strike swiftly-some little-understood disease might wipe out the investment in the flock or the herd; a man or a child could die from snakebite, a tetanus-infected wound, a fall from a horse. Or disaster could set in slowly with the onset of drought. It was ever-present and a woman at home alone all day had time to think about it. Some took despairingly to drink, some fell into incurable depression, others told their husbands they could not endure it and left for the city.
The ideal woman was a good manager-no small task with only wood stoves, kerosene lamps, inadequate water, and the nearest store for canned goods fifty to a hundred miles away. She was toughened by adversity, laughed at her fears, knew how to fix things which broke in the house, and stifled any craving she might once have had for beauty. She could care for the sick, help fight a bushfire, aid a horse or cow in difficult labor, laugh and joke about life's absurdities and reverses, and like a man, mock any signs of weakness or lack of stoicism in her children. Everyone knew the most important gift to a child was an upbringing which would toughen him (her) up so as to be stoic and uncomplaining about life's pains and ready for its reverses. The sons of the outback made great soldiers in modern wars because they had been prepared for them since infancy. The daughters lacked such a calling.
The pattern of the year followed the seasons. If the rains came, they fell in the winter. Lambing was planned for the spring, when the grass was at its best, and the last winter showers might have left some tender growth for young lambs to nibble before their teeth developed. If seasons cooperated, the lambs were well grown, able to walk great distances for their food and water by the time the summer set in. In February, before the summer reached its peak, the lambs were shorn, and the faces and withers of the grown sheep were trimmed so that flies could not infest the places where sweat and urine soiled their fleeces. In June, in midwinter, when it was less harmful to move the animals over distances and hold them penned in yards, the grown sheep were brought to a shearing shed and shorn. If there had been an uninterrupted supply of nourishment through the year, their fleece would be seven inches thick, unstained by dust, and carrying an unbroken staple that meant it could be easily combed to spin the finest yarn. If the land they grazed did not carry enough herbage throughout the year, the staple of their fleeces would show a break to mark the point where the food supply had faltered. When the staple was broken it could not be so easily combed, and the yarn it produced, being of less high quality, sold for less. If there were too many breaks it might not repay the cost of producing it.
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Jill Ker Conway's The Road from Coorain. We hope they will aid your understanding of the many rich themes that make up Conway's story of her youth in mid-century Australia.
1. In the first chapter, Conway writes of the "bush ethos which grew up from making a virtue out of loneliness and hardship" (p. 8). Stoicism and self- sufficiency are the ideals adopted by the outback settlers. How have those ideals shaped the Kers' lives? In what way have they been destructive to the family? Though Conway finally rejected these values, is it possible that they helped her to break away from her potentially unproductive life and start again?
2. Conway stresses the fact that Australians of her parents' generation defined themselves as Britons and saw their own country only in British terms. They equated their national interests with England's; even their map of the world was seen from a British perspective, with nearby Japan located in the "Far East." How did this attitude shape the educational system into which Jill and her brothers were placed? How did it color their attitudes toward their native country? How did it shape the young Australians' class consciousness, in a country whose social and racial make-up was so different from contemporary England's?
3. How does Conway present her mother as a prototypical twentieth-century woman? In what way are the attitudes of Australian society to blame for the mother's deterioration from being an independent professional, a "great healer" (p. 195), to a neurotic hypochondriac? How has her simple system of values proved inadequate to the complex world of the twentieth century? To what degree do you feel that she has caused her own problems?
4. Conway compares the barriers against women that she herself encountered as she grew up with those that shaped her mother's life. Some were openly acknowledged (i.e., the inequitable wages for men and women offered in the Help Wanted ads). Some were more insidious: unspoken prejudices buried deep within the culture. How do the two women differ in the way they confront these barriers? How do their different educational backgrounds affect their points of view?
5. Conway speculates that had her parents encountered failure earlier in their lives, they might "have learned to bend a little before the harshness of fate" (p. 23). How does the disastrous drought at Coorain affect the character of Conway's father? Conway suggests that his death was a suicide. Does she acknowledge and confront his implied abandonment of her and the rest of the family?
6. "It was a comprehensible world" (p. 50), Conway writes of her early childhood on Coorain. "One saw visible results from one's labors" (p. 50). In what way does the young girl's comprehensible world turn into an incomprehensible one? What efforts does she make to confer meaning upon it? How do religious, spiritual, and intellectual systems of thought help or hinder her?
7. Conway writes that in Australia, "people distrusted intellectuals. Australians mocked anyone with 'big ideas' and found them specially laughable in women" (p. 146). But the same Australians who mocked "ideas" also had a high regard for success, inclusive of academic success. What shape do these contradictory attitudes give Australian society? How does the isolated position of Australian intellectuals, as depicted by Conway, reflect this dichotomy? The United States, like Australia, is a culture with a significant history of anti-intellectualism. How is this reflected in our own society?
8. How did Conway's experiences with professional discrimination against women bring her to a more personal realization of the fate of Australia's aboriginal people? What do her parents' use of the nardoo stones found on Coorain signify to her?
9. Mid-century Australia had an overwhelmingly white population, but this was not true of England's colonies and dominions in Asia and Africa. How does Conway's visit to newly independent Ceylon change her view of the British Empire and of the imperialist credo of white superiority? The credo is not merely racial, but cultural as well. What perspective is Conway given on her own society's culture and history by her first encounter with the wider world?
10. While the Australians willingly went to war for England, England's treatment of Australia as expendable during the Second World War dramatized the actual state of affairs. Conway knew that "it was time to give up pretenses of the old British Empire, recognize that we were a Southern Pacific nation, and begin to study and understand the peoples and countries of our part of the globe" (p. 182). How does Conway relate her own choice of vocation as a historian to her country's quest for identity? By extension, in what symbolic ways does she identify her own life with that of Australia?
11. Conway's story, like James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ends with her acceptance of a life of exile. But unlike Joyce, she sees her exile as resulting from a series of "thorough and all-encompassing defeats" (p. 236). Is the narrative of Conway's early life really a story of defeat? Or is it perhaps a story of success? Conway felt that she had failed in several areas—in making her mother happy, in running Coorain—but were these quixotic battles, impossible to win? Do you feel, as she did, that she turned her back on her duty?
12. Jill Ker Conway has written: "The rise of democracy has enlarged the focus of interest in the lives of other people—from monarch, great general, and political leader to the ordinary person—someone like ourselves" (Written by Herself, p. vii). How does Conway shape her own story—that of an obscure, isolated young girl—into a narrative with wide social and historical implications?
13. How does Conway shape the plot of The Road from Coorain? Is it a romance, a story of material success, an odyssey, a spiritual or intellectual quest or the story of a conflict between mother and daughter?
14. Conway has written elsewhere about her environmental concerns. What is the role of nature in this narrative, and how does her own understanding of the natural world influence her intellectual development?
15. The Road from Coorain is a narrative about separation and the formation of a strongly bonded female personality. It is thus a story which runs counter to a current sentimental view of women's lives as networks of relationships. Is Conway's view persuasive?
Posted January 11, 2004
'The Western plains of New South Wales are grasslands.' Grasslands that with their vastness, their cycles of drought and bounty, and above all their isolation, shaped a little girl who would one day become Smith College's first woman president. This book has been marketed as a coming of age story for girls. It's surely that, and a remarkable one. It is also (for this American reader, anyway) a fascinating look into a culture of many similarities - but with subtle, yet sometimes startling differences. Something else it ought to be is required reading for any young woman (particularly any gifted young woman!) trapped by a co-dependent relationship with her birth family. Read it, and think about what this world loses every time a woman capable of Jill Ker Conway's lifetime achievements subsumes her talents and sacrifices her dreams because the code of her childhood demands it. A book that will stay will me always.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 23, 2000
This book was extremely interesting for me, as a first time reading about Australian life. It took me far away from the American and Latin American worlds that I have lived in. At times more than one paragraph or even pages are dedicated to describing the landscape, the flowers, the garden. It is amazing to me that one can describe the landscape in such detail. When we study and educate ourselves, we change and it is often difficult to find good companionship. The author talks about this problem many times. The fine school she attended before the University of Sydney, was a great educational experience, after which she was not supposed to be more intelligent than men, she was expected to hide her knowledge. Once one develops him/herself it is difficult or impossible to go back to the old environment. We think that as better prepared/educated persons we will be more successful in our original environment, only to see that we do not fit there anymore. Biographies provide advice for life in a very subtle way. We can learn from the author¿s father: ¿Your duty¿s to your talents¿, he said, ¿Never forget it. You can pay someone to run that ranch almost as well as you¿ll do it. But no one else can develop your gifts¿.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 21, 2015
Posted March 9, 2012
I read this astonishing story of an early feminist when it first was released. I just re-read it after a trip to Australia and was even more impressed with Jill Ker Conway's persistence, courage and intelligence. Her excellent writing makes the story of her journey come alive.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 11, 2011
The Road From Coorain by Jill Ker Conway tells the tale of a young girl growing up on her family's farm in Australia. It tells of how she dreampt of something more than what was expected of the average female in the 1900's. The Road From Coorain illustrates one girls journey to adulthood, showing that life isn't easy and the road isn't always smooth. Jill Ker Conway talked about how even though she had her problems and deaths and how her family was not perfect she was still able to become a very intelligent and successful historian, who specializes in the experience of women in America, as well as being the first woman president of Smith college. I enjoyed reading this book. I thought it was well written and had a wonderful story as well as a good message. I also thought it was inspiring to read about defying expectations and stretching the female boundries. However, I did think that this book was a slow read. It was depressing when it came to dealing with the deaths and hardships in her life and did not include a lot of uplifting moments. I thought it difficult to read a story that was supposed to be on a woman finding herself and becoming something great, when there was only about a fourth of the book on that. As far as I could tell it focused too greatly on the bad things that happened in her life and did not give enough recognition to the good things and her success. I also did not like her writing style. It was slow and different than what I have become used to. I would recommend this book if you enjoy auto biographies and or inspirational true stories. I would not recommend this book if you find it too hard to sort through all the small stuff to find the big picture, or if you do not like slow reads. Alone with this, I would recommend Into Thin Air and In My Hands if you enjoy inspirational stories. Into Thin Air is about a man who climbed Everest and the hard journey he had to face to achieve greatness. In My Hands is about a woman who hid Jewish people in a Nazi officer's office and how she did the right thing even though it could have ended horribly. I have not personally read the second book but I hear it is an interesting and amazing story. Overall, I would rate The Road From Coorain a three because while I did not enjoy reading it, it still had a nice story and was very inspiring to hear about a woman not needing a man or anyone else in life and overcoming the stereotype of the average female in the 1900's.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 27, 2008
Posted December 29, 2004
I passed this book on to at least four people. And, I preferred it to West with the Night. A wonderful memoir, especially her relationship with her siblings. Not as many 'outbackish' descriptions as I had expected. But a lovely, simple story of growing up and coming of age in Australia. Skip the sequel TRUE NORTH as it lacks the charm and interest of THE ROAD FROM COORAIN.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 3, 2003
I really can't explain my feelings in words. Look at the subject first then read on. They are all by Dr. Jill Ker Conway (shes a phd). The titles are The Road from Coorain (also a Exxon Mobil Masterpiece Theater movie as well), True North, and A Women's Education. Is she orginally from New South Wales, Australia. Came to the United States for graduate school, but stayed there after that, but was Canada as well for 6 years. Boys you will also love reading them as well. Thank you.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 24, 2002
I think that The Road from Coorain was a good book that let a reader relate to what is happening. If you are a student it is a good book to hear about other peoples problems and see how they tried to solve them. This would also go the same way if you are an adult, but I think that it would make a better point to a teenager. A word of advice, keep reading the first two chapters are slow but the book gets a lot better!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 12, 2001
This book was wonderful. It's story kept me reading from the day I picked up the book. Going into such great detail in Jill Ker's life, it makes you want to meet her in person. This is a story of tragic endings and new beginnings that will make you fall in love with the magic and beauty of the Australian outback.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 9, 2009
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Posted September 1, 2011
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Posted September 30, 2011
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Posted September 15, 2013
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Posted July 18, 2011
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