THE ROAD FROM COORAIN, By Jill Ker Conway. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 238 pp. $18.95. EARLY in her book Jill Ker Conway describes the differing impact Australia's vast interior had on her mother and father. ``She saw no landmarks to identify direction, only emptiness. My father saw strong fertile soil, indications of grazed-out saltbush, dips and changes in the contours of the land and its soils, landmarks of all kinds.''
It was from this land, or the chunk of it they named ``Coorain'' (Aboriginal for ``windy place''), that Conway's parents were to wrest a living. The unceasing struggle against nature - culminating in a disastrous drought that nearly destroyed their sheep station - shaped the author's early perceptions of life.
And her mother's sense of emptiness and impending disaster, persisting long after her husband had died and Coorain was run by hired caretakers, was a weight that Conway labored under until the turning point that ends the book. She decides to leave Australia to pursue an academic career in the United States, which eventually led to the presidency of Smith College.
As the title implies, ``The Road from Coorain'' narrates an emergence into adulthood. The early sections, about life in the outback, are full of nature's imagery and a kind of gritty romance. Conway's parents seem the archetypes of pioneering Australians - lean, strong, physically beautiful and morally moored.
In Coorain, this couple found a place to make a life and raise a family. But it was grueling. There was ``no way to mitigate the red baked soil, the flatness, and the loneliness,'' Conway writes. Her father was stimulated by the challenge. Her mother endured through strength of will, disoriented and clinging to the home for bearings.
Conway herself thrived as one of her father's hands. She observed colorful bush characters like the Aborigine who helped with the sheep, the shearers who came around each year to ply their trade, and the crusty old driller who finally coaxed enough moisture from the earth to make her mother's garden possible., and the cheerful Scottish neighbor who saw them through hard times. She rode fences, tended the sheep, and tried in vain to get the dogs to work for her as they did for her father. It was a rich childhood.
But it ended with the terrible drought of the early 1940s and her father's death, a probable suicide. She moved with her mother to Sydney, to an alien urban landscape and her first formal schooling after years of at-home tutoring. After being roundly hazed in the public schools, Conway moved on to a private academy that provided her first taste of the scholarly pursuits.
Her tightly bound family sustained another tragedy with the death of her oldest brother in a car accident. Her mother sank into a destructive self-absorption from which she never fully emerged. But Conway knew, as she followed her love of history on to the University of Sydney, that she would have to escape her mother's desperate grip on what remained of her family. Much of the later part of the book is taken up with that struggle, together with accounts of her development as a young woman in a society that offered few openings to talented females.
Conway's reflections on this experience are feminist in tone, but not doctrinaire. Women will doubtless draw things from this rich narrative, points of familiarity, that men may miss. And many readers will find the Coorain chapters quickly engaging, compared with the later chapters, which are slower going. But as one perceptive person's path through an eventful childhood and adolescence, Conway's book offers universal insights into perseverance and self-discovery.