True North: A Memoir

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With all the openness to life, all the largeness of spirit, that made her girlhood memoir, The Road from Coorain, an acclaimed - and beloved - bestseller, Jill Ker Conway continues her story. She was twenty-five when we left her, driven by a hunger to know and to understand, boarding a plane that would carry her far from her Australian homeland. As True North begins she lands, appropriately enough, in a hurricane, in New York. And is soon at Harvard, a graduate student in history experiencing both exhilaration ...
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True North: A Memoir

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With all the openness to life, all the largeness of spirit, that made her girlhood memoir, The Road from Coorain, an acclaimed - and beloved - bestseller, Jill Ker Conway continues her story. She was twenty-five when we left her, driven by a hunger to know and to understand, boarding a plane that would carry her far from her Australian homeland. As True North begins she lands, appropriately enough, in a hurricane, in New York. And is soon at Harvard, a graduate student in history experiencing both exhilaration and culture shock; discovering among friends of many backgrounds an easier sociability than she has ever known; delighting in classes that seem charged with energy, and in the perception that ideas were being taken seriously - yet still feeling like an extraterrestrial on the American planet. We see her joining with five other women to form a household that becomes an "almost magical," hilarious, and harmonious community - the community that functions as her family when she meets the Harvard professor and housemaster who will become her husband, John Conway, himself a historian, Canadian born and bred, decorated for heroism in World War II - the complex man whose mind and spirit complement her own. We see them marrying and learning to live together - during a year at Oxford, in Rome, and as they settle into the new world of Canadian university life - happy with each other, while coping, not always well, with her classically obsessive thesis writing, her as-yet-unresolved conflict with her mother, his periodic bouts of depression, and her realization that even though John's integrity, courage, and devotion to humanistic learning have become the compass point - the true north - by which she steers, there will be times when she has to navigate alone. We witness the moment of her spiritual arrival on this continent and her discovery of her warrior self - fighting for equity in her own career and for other women. This is how a most private woman found for hers
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Conway continues her autobiography in this follow up to The Road from Coorain, picking up with her arrival in the U.S. to begin graduate studies at Harvard, and culminating with her being named the first woman president of Smith College in 1975. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Conway's memoir picks up where her best-selling The Road from Corain left off.
School Library Journal
YA-Following The Road from Coorain Knopf, 1989, Conway leaves Australia to discover the freedom of open inquiry at Harvard University, and to break away from her mother's oppressive demands. For the first time, she forms true friendships with other women and develops a sense of confidence and happiness that becomes almost complete when she marries Professor John Conway, her ``true north'' compass point. The Conways face serious challenges as they move to Canada where the author teaches history and later becomes vice president of Toronto University. As the book ends, she is president of Smith College. Conway writes in a clear, brisk, literary style that is readable, engaging, and sometimes lyrical. She details successes and pleasures as well as personal sorrows and disappointments that require background knowledge from the earlier title. The final third of the book is a technical discussion of university-administration issues and of less general appeal, but good for readers interested in academic careers. Mature YAs seeking biography or women's studies will find Conway's continuing journey a fascinating one.-Judy Sokoll, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
From the Publisher
"Compelling...A fascinating life." —The Toronto Star

"Conway is a remarkable woman—spunky, intelligent." —The Globe and Mail

"A wonderful book...An immensely engaging storyteller." —Washington Post Book World

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679744610
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/1995
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 804,840
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Jill Ker Conway taught at the University of Toronto from 1964 to 1975 when she became the first woman president of Smith college.  Since 1985 she has been a visiting scholar at MIT, and lives in Boston.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt


Within hours of my arrival in September 1960, New York astonished and delighted me. The astonishment was instant. I stepped from the plane at what is now called John F. Kennedy Airport but was then called Idlewild into a wall of water, my first encounter with an East Coast hurricane. The scene inside the airport resembled a Brueghel run wild. Sodden people lurched in all directions, colliding in their frantic search for lost luggage and nonexistent taxis. Some laughed and told war stories of other major storms. Others interrogated all comers, anxious for news.

Accustomed to a prim British stiffness when with strangers, and doubly wary because of repeated warnings delivered by well-traveled Australian friends about the dangers of life in New York, I was monosyllabic at first in response to friendly and cheery questions about where I was from and where I was going. I could scarcely believe the hive of activity at the airport at 2:00 a.m., or the philosophic figures draped over every chair and bench seeking sleep amid the hubbub.

The reasons for the chaos emerged slowly. The hurricane, named, for reasons I couldn't understand, Donna, had flooded all the roads leading to the airport, preventing ground crews, taxis, indeed all forms of transportation from reaching Idlewild. The crowd seemed to accept this situation with easy familiarity. I, accustomed to Australian good weather, thought it highly disruptive of well-laid plans. These people seemed much more flexible than I was used to, and much more friendly. I broke down and began to exchange stories with my neighbors about how long my flight from San Francisco had circled the airport (an hourand a half). I wondered out loud how I could make it to the International House at Columbia, where I was staying for a few days to explore the city. "Oh, there'll be a night watchman to let you in, no matter what hour we get into Manhattan. The buses will make it first. Just take a Carey bus to the East Side Terminal. There will be taxis there. It's only a short ride to Columbia." The speaker was a lanky young man with a crew cut and thick-lensed, horn-rimmed spectacles, who turned out to be a graduate student headed for Yale. He eventually helped me extract my heavy suitcases from the mountains of luggage suddenly produced by a few drenched and harassed baggage men, and showed me where to load them on the bus headed for the East Side Terminal.

The night watchman at International House was a friendly and dignified black man. "I thought you'd show up soon. I've been listening to the radio, wondering how you were doing in this storm after coming all the way from Australia." As he spoke over his shoulder, leading me to my room, the image of Manhattan as a vast impersonal city, an image created by countless movies, antiurban novels, and crime stories, faded farther into the background. I fell asleep relishing the comforts of a room far less spartan than the Australian dormitories I'd grown up with.

The next day was sunny and steamy. Not in the least like the fall weather Australian travelers to New England had told me to expect. At breakfast I met a diminutive blond girl from Oklahoma, bound for graduate work in history at Columbia. Over fruit and coffee she quickly corrected my political attitudes. Eisenhower, to me still a hero from the 1939-45 war, was a villain to her. Her eyes flashed as she told me how Ike had catered shamelessly to the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, and how he had presided over the buildup of the defense industry. Despite my initial puzzlement at these views we took an instant liking to each other and agreed that we would meet the next morning to explore the city. Reassured by having found a companion for sightseeing, I set out on my own to find Fifth Avenue and the city's fabled emporia of fashion.

The cab I hailed on Amsterdam Avenue was of a type I came to love as a New York fixture. Rattletrap, dirty, driven by an overweight man in a windbreaker, it slowed to my wave. Where did I want to go? I gave the address of an American Express branch on Fifth Avenue at midtown, intending to replenish a dwindling supply of dollars.

"Where're ya from?" the driver asked, eying me in the rearview mirror. Still a little tense about talking to strangers in a city I'd been told was a dangerous place, I said I was from Australia. His face broke into a happy smile. "This your first day in the city?" When I admitted it was he leaned across and turned off the meter. "Well, honey," he said, "I'm gonna show you Manhattan. I was in Sydney a few times during the war. People were very nice to me there, so I want to pay a bit of it back."

We worked our way down to Battery Park, looked at the Statue of Liberty, stopped at the Fulton Street Fish Market, had coffee in a place in the Village where he told me the jazz was good at night, strolled around Washington Square, stopped to examine the Chrysler Building (Frank, my guide, said the Empire State Building was crummy), took in Sutton Place ("where Marilyn Monroe lives"), rode through Central Park, all to Frank's ironic and witty monologue about the city and its inhabitants. At the end of three hours we were fast friends. I knew all about Frank's experiences at Bataan and Corregidor, the names and ages of his wife and children, what he'd done in the fifteen years since the war, still clearly his most vivid experience. He had oriented me to the city and made it seem safe. He had also corrected permanently my thirdhand view of America as a cold and competitive place. Instead of fearing I would be ripped off by every New Yorker I met, I knew I was going to love the city's electric mood, its pace, its contrasts, and its dazzling beauty.

The next morning I rode the Circle Line Ferry around Manhattan with my Oklahoma friend. Both of us were intoxicated by the sparkling, crisp morning. We each fell into a companionable reverie listening to the usual tourist blurb over the loudspeaker. I began to fit the colonial history I knew to the skyscrapers and the grand houses of the West Side, and to imagine the seventeenth-century port alive with sailing ships and buccaneers. As with all new sights in Australia, I could never resist trying to imagine what each new vista of the land looked like to the first Europeans. I tried stripping away the buildings to arrive at this low-lying island bounded by rivers with the great land mass beyond. I could see why F. Scott Fitzgerald had found it so romantic, this little wisp of land at the edge of a great continent. It was not that I had come like a Fitzgerald hero to conquer this new territory. I had come looking for knowledge, the discipline of study, and the challenge for someone of my overindulged life implicit in the simple circumstances of a scholarship student. Yet these resolves began to pale because I could barely contain my excitement leaning there on the rail, gazing at Manhattan. The light seemed dazzlingly bright, the buildings more visually challenging than one could tell from the most spectacular photographs, and the aspirations that had found expression in the city seemed to vibrate palpably in the air. My somber sense of exile from Australia dissolved like a fog in sunlight. I was going to enjoy myself here.

On the train to Boston the next afternoon my excitement subsided. The coastline which was revealed as the train rattled along was unexceptional, the grey pebble-ringed Atlantic a disappointment to a denizen of the lyric blue Pacific. The neat towns with their white churches, their meaning as yet concealed from me, flashed by like so many postcards. The most startling sights and sounds were inside the Pullman car, where I heard my first Boston Irish accent, and where, unwary about seeking a nonsmoking car, I found myself seated in a fog of cigar smoke, listening to loud talk about horseraces and football.

I couldn't fit the places to the images their names evoked. New Haven. Was such a nondescript platform really the place where one descended for such a seat of learning? Providence, visible from the train, was a run-down place, not the grand eighteenth-century city I expected. And Boston. When the kindly conductor assembled my bags and helped me down at South Station I seemed to have come to a depressed industrial city, not the center of learning and high culture I'd read about.

The cabdriver spoke the same nearly incomprehensible dialect. "Mass Ave. or Storrow Drive?" he asked impassively, sounding as though some strange spell had stretched out his vowels. We settled on Massachusetts Avenue, a mistake in the evening rush hour, and a worse one because it carried me to Cambridge past scenes of urban blight worse than any I'd ever encountered. "Where's that?" I asked, gesturing toward a quadrilateral of teetering buildings festooned with decaying neon signs, crisscrossed with trolley wires. "Scollay Square," the driver remarked, apparently untouched by the ugliness outside his window.

I began to reflect on the folly that had taken me from the beauty and comfort of Sydney to this decaying city. Every unfolding scene confirmed my gloomy prognosis. Harvard Square, when reached, was no grand square, but an ellipse of shops converging on the low buildings of Harvard Yard, shadows in the dusk. Mercifully the Radcliffe Graduate Center, at 6 Ash Street, was a modern, pink-brick neocolonial building on a quiet side street. After piling my bags in the hall and tipping the driver far too much, I went to find the Head Resident. To my surprise she was a fellow graduate student who was administering this residence for three hundred graduate women as a part-time job while she finished her doctorate in English Literature. Barbara Charlesworth was a beautiful, willowy woman, just my age, whose soft voice had a faint Scottish burr, something I learned was part of her Canadian heritage. Abundant light brown hair framed her heartshaped face, remarkable for its delicately chiseled features and large luminous grey eyes. It was plain to see that she looked on life with humorous detachment, her passions all directed to the world of ideas. I liked her at once.

My premonitions of discomfort about the new world were confirmed by her laughing explanation that dinner, which had begun at 5:30 p.m. (the time for nursery tea in my calendar), would conclude in a few minutes, at 7:00 p.m. The knots in my stomach at the thought of the graceless girls boarding school I'd entered subsided at Barbara's cheerful offer of help in getting my bags to my room, where I could begin settling in while she prepared a snack for me in her apartment.

So began a friendship which became, within a very few weeks, a shaping influence on my life. Barbara was a student of Victorian literature whose love of language fit easily with my own. She had attended the Canadian variant of my AustralianBritish girls boarding school. She had come to hers from the wildly exotic setting of a Colombian mining camp, where her father's career as an accountant had carried the family. At her Toronto convent, she had, like me, been a stranger, struggling to translate between dissonant cultures. I had found someone, on the other side of the planet, who shared my experience almost exactly. Moreover, though our cultural journeys had set out from different points on the compass, they had produced the same result: a driving passion for knowledge-mine, historical; hers, literary-and a shared need to push below the surface of things to look for deeper meanings.

I began to relax when Barbara offered me a stiff Scotch, chatting easily while she opened a can of soup, produced a hearty sandwich, and found the components of a fine salad in the recesses of her refrigerator. As I took stock of her quietly elegant rooms, other lively and interesting people began to appear. I forgot about how ugly Boston had seemed, as it dawned on me that I had come to live in one of the world's greatest concentrations of intellectual women. It was a sign of my low level of awareness of such things that I'd given great thought to the Harvard faculty I would meet but none at all to my fellow women graduate students. Although the odds against such happenings are astronomically high, I met, within the next hour, sitting in Barbara's comfortable rooms, three other women who were to be lifelong friends. The first to erupt into the room were Mina Farhad, a woman one would have thought to have stepped straight out of a Persian miniature, until the sound of her wicked belly laugh made her seem utterly contemporary, and her improbable suite mate, Jana Moravkova, a Czech woman, daughter of implacable resistance fighters against the Nazis. Jana's accent was French because of her undergraduate education at the Sorbonne, but her Gallic joie de vivre was matched by a spirit and intellect clearly from pre-Enlightenment Europe. Her manners were formal and aristocratic, while in appearance she looked like the wood carvings of youthful Madonnas one saw in baroque churches. Both women were working in the molecular biology program which had recently contributed to the discovery of DNA, and both conveyed some of the excitement that went with the awareness that one was working on the edge of great discovery. Their easy curiosity about who I was, and comfortable acceptance that any woman in her right mind who wanted to achieve something as a scholar would come to Radcliffe, eased the memories of hundreds of careful explanations to uncomprehending Australian friends and acquaintances about why I wasn't satisfied to settle at home, or study at Oxford or Cambridge.

Promptly at 10:30 p.m. Carla Levine arrived, invited by Barbara to meet me, because Carla's room was across the corridor from mine in our distant wing of the building. Just home from the library, Carla was petite, dark haired, and strikingly beautiful. Everyone laughed at the promptness of her arrival, because, they told me, one could set one's watch by Carla's hours of departure for the library, and her equally predictable return. Several years younger than I, she was already a year into her doctoral program in Middle Eastern Studies, intent on understanding Arab-Israeli conflicts at a scholarly rather than ideological level. One could see that this woman from Kansas City, Missouri, was no typical Midwesterner. I'd had few Jewish friends, and was unprepared for her wildly extravagant sense of humor, or for the laughing way in which she told me I looked like the walking Jewish stereotype of a goy. After we returned to our rooms Carla and I talked until the small hours of the morning about our dreams as scholars, where we had come from, and why we were in Cambridge.

Copyright 1995 by Jill Ker Conway
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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

1. Conway comes to think of her work as a "vocation" almost in the religious sense of the word. What importance does Conway assign work in a woman's life? Does she consider it more important than love, or less so? How does she reconcile work with the somewhat abstract concept of duty? In what way does she redefine her ideas of duty as she grows up? How do she and her Radcliffe roommates cope with their feelings of guilt at being "different"? Does Conway succeed in turning her sense of guilt into constructive channels? How?

2. Conway's narrative opens with her being accepted into a liberating community of young women and closes with her departure to conserve and foster another such community. How does Conway use this frame to shape the various themes of the autobiography? How does she balance the story of her own formation as an individual with that of her coming to identify herself as part of a group?

3. "Every verbal and visual message of the world I'd grown up in telegraphed that a young female belonged with somebody else... anything that would signal to the world that she was going about the business of being a helpful and charming female bent on caring for the needs of others" [p. x]. Here Conway is speaking of Australia in the 1950s. How different is the society she encounters in the United States? How are American attitudes toward women symbolized in the professional fates of her roommates Barbara and Jana?

4. Upon her arrival in New England, Conway is much struck with its Puritan tradition; essential contradictions, she notes, are implicit in a society "devoted to the pursuit of happiness" [p. 21] yet ruled by the "Puritan fear of the world, and of earthlybeauty" [p. 21]. How do these New England moral preoccupations differ from those she encounters in Canada? How do they differ from the Australian ethos, with its stoicism and cult of death?

5. Is it possible to explain Mrs. Ker's violent response to her daughter's engagement in social as well as psychological terms? How does her valuation of her daughter as an economic asset compare with the centuries-old tradition of looking on women as property?

6. How does the book's title convey the essential quality of Jill and John Conway's marriage? Do the intellectual and spiritual bonds shared by the Conways differ significantly from those in more traditional marriages? If so, how? Do you find the Conways' romance unusual, nontraditional? Or should their ideals of mutual respect and equality be essential ingredients in any successful marriage?

7. "I thought of my mother, with her strong managerial ability, her drive for power, her restless energy, sitting alone in her neat suburban house, schooled to believe she shouldn't be in business, or running an organization" [p. 161]. To what extent does Mrs. Ker function as a cautionary example for her daughter? How does she inspire (albeit negatively) Conway's quest for knowledge? Is it possible that Conway's swift professional progress is to some degree driven by a fear of being caught in the same traps that have destroyed her mother?

8. How is Conway's thinking about the opposing virtues of action and endurance developed during her husband's intense battle with mental illness? How does this ordeal differ from, or resemble, ordeals she has had to undergo in the past? Are the resources of Australian stoicism sufficient to her emotional needs?

9. Conway points out that "the dream of a genuine community of scholars, mediating the conflict between generations, linking young and old in a mutually loving quest for knowledge, has inspired ideas about academic communities since Greek times" [pp. 157-58]. To what extent are Conway and her women friends able to establish such a community at Harvard/Radcliffe? Do the universities of Harvard and Toronto foster or hinder the creation of such utopias? How does this ideal direct Conway's career as an administrator?

10. As Vice President of the University of Toronto, Conway began to understand "why the great medieval historians had studied institutions. They had a life of their own" [pp. 226-27]. How might Conway's new understanding of the University affect her vision as a historian? In what way is the University of Toronto, as Conway describes it, representative of the larger society?

11. How does Conway's success in administrative work help her to understand her own character and abilities? Conway ruefully compares her lack of self-knowledge with that of Jane Addams and her other subjects. She explains the cultural reasons for Addams's self-deception. What do you see as the cultural reasons for Conway's own self-deception?

12. How does Conway present the arguments for women's colleges versus coeducation? Are her arguments persuasive? Is her use of the nineteenth-century models of Oberlin and Mt. Holyoke a valid one? Do you feel that the arguments for or against single-sex education have substantially changed in the twenty years since Conway began her work at Smith College? Do women's colleges, as Conway believes, embody "important aspects of modernity" [p. 248]?

13. How does Conway's way of looking at history differ from the diplomatic and constitutional model she learned as a child? In your view, is this change in outlook representative of a general change in the way we have come to look at history? How does Conway's historical vision help her in understanding the peculiarities of the Australian, American, and Canadian national characters and institutions? How did it affect her view of the Vietnam war?

14. How does the beauty and variety of the natural world--both in her native Australia and her adopted countries of Canada and the United States--affect Conway's life and her personal decisions? How does she use the theme of nature to structure her autobiography?

15. How does Canadian political philosophy, as described by Conway, differ from that of the United States? How has the country's geography affected this philosophy? What differences does Conway see between Canadian and American standards of civic virtue and communal responsibility? How does "the Canadian sense of romanitas, the sense of the law and traditon as the basis of civilized society, " [p. 136] compare with the American ideal of individual rights?

16. What do you learn from Conway's experience of expatriation? As an expatriate, does she feel alienation, or personal growth and enrichment? Or both? What contributions can the thoughtful expatriate make to society in today's world of barbaric nationalistic wars?

17. Conway discovers that although Jane Addams and the other great women reformers she is studying were all extremely forceful characters, each wrote about herself as "the ultimate romantic female, all intuition and emotion" [p. 150]. How does Conway explain this phenomenon? Do you agree with her explanation? How does Conway's own self-presentation differ from this model? If Addams's autobiography is written with a 1910s readership in mind, is Conway's written with a 1990s readership in mind? If so, how does she address the 1990s reader's expectations?

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 10, 2014


    Conway continues her story, begun in The Road From Coorain which describes her coming-of-age life on an Australian sheep farm. After obtaining an undergraduate at the University of Sydney, True North describes her adventures, first in the United States, where she begins graduate studies and meets her future husband, and then continues on to Toronto, Canada, where she eventually becaomes Vice President of the University of Toronto.

    Conway's writing is literate, sophisticated, and a pleasure to read. Her signature restraint, while making her memoirs into real page-turners, belies her intellectual depth and the enormous importance of the work she does in the field of women's education.

    True North leaves Conway poised for another life-changing decision and its consequences, which story she tells in her final volume of memoir, A Woman's Education.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2006

    Women and Leadership

    True North: A Memoir is not just a well written book that is hard to put down, but the next-to-last chapter should be required reading for women in leadership or who are entering such positions. Her insights are invaluable and that chapter is worth far more than the price of the book.

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  • Anonymous

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2009

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