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Russell Baker [imagemap with 8 links]

Russell Baker on The Road From Coorain

Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.

More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.

Tonight's story begins in a desolate frontier region of Australia where good grazing land lies perilously close to desert. The time is the 1930s. Our show is adapted from Jill Ker Conway's immensely popular memoir The Road from Coorain, which was published in 1989 and became a long-term bestseller. The road young Jill Ker took from Coorain eventually took her to the far side of the Earth and a distinguished academic career, but all that lies in an inconceivably remote future as we begin her story.

Her father, in return for army service in World War I, was granted 18,000 acres on this great empty landscape and set out to raise sheep for wool, the country's great cash crop. He and his wife arrived in 1929, built a house and gave the place a name -- Coorain. It's an aboriginal word meaning "windy place," though it's not wind that's the most forceful presence here; it's drought.

Jill's father has grown up in this lonely world and loves it, but for her mother -- "not born to the bush," she says in her book -- Coorain was "a nightmare of desolation." Before marriage she'd been a professional nurse running a country hospital. When we meet her now, though, she is determined to be the best possible wife and mother. Besides Jill, the baby of the family, she has two older sons.

Jill's mother may remind many of us of our own pioneer women who endured terrible toil and despair to settle the lonely American prairie in the 19th century.

Now The Road from Coorain.

Young Jill Ker's love for Australia was tempered by a sense that it was still oppressively old-fashioned in its treatment of women. The United States seemed likelier to give her the opportunities she wanted, and she went. After taking a Ph.D. in history at Harvard, she taught at the University of Toronto, became vice president there, and in 1975 became president of Smith College, the first woman ever to fill the top job at that exclusive women's college.

After 10 years at Smith she went on to MIT as a visiting scholar and professor. In this period she began writing her memoirs. The Road from Coorain was her first, and it was a huge success. Though first published in 1989, it is still a constant seller. A book that still sells a dozen years after publication is said to be a book that "has legs."

Part of the explanation may be its powerful evocation of the soul-crushing tedium that defined women's lives in places like Coorain. Jill's mother becomes heroic simply by enduring it. When her father left the house, "there was no contact with another human being, and the silence was so profound it pressed upon the eardrums," she wrote. "For my mother the emptiness was disorienting, and the loneliness and silence a daily torment of existential dread."

Since Coorain, Mrs. Conway has published two other memoirs -- True North and A Woman's Education -- and a third book reflecting on the nature and structure of books about the lives of real people.

I'm Russell Baker. Good night.

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