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NONFICTION

TRUE NORTH by Jill Ker Conway. (Knopf: $23 : 246 pp.) Here is another chapter in Jill Ker Conway’s life, which seems to move ever forward with a determined stride. For those who did not read “The Road From Coorain,” it may not be immediately clear that Conway is running from a childhood that eerily resembles Manon’s in the book and film “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring.” As a child in the Australian outback, Conway watched her beloved father fold from the backbreaking labor of trying to carve a living in that harsh environment, and her mother turn into a willful, dependent neurotic. She is also running from “a culture actively hostile to women, and from the constraints of a still-colonial society.” A scholar first and last, in 1960 Conway got a Fulbright scholarship and went to Harvard to get a doctorate in history. At Harvard, she met her husband, John Conway, a scholar and also a sufferer of deep depression. Conway’s own nature is so buoyant, so grateful and capable, that it is easy to imagine her providing the emotional structure for their relationship. They both obtain teaching positions in Canada, where she is eventually made vice president of the University of Toronto, and then on to president of Smith College in Massachusetts. Conway’s contribution at each of these places is her devotion to women’s studies, and to equality for women in the academic environment. She is very strong, unfettered in her youthful ambition by romantic attachments, and clearly one of the first of a generation of woman that had to fight every step of the way. When things got really bad, Conway would go to Elizabeth Arden’s, have a few martinis and put some “intellectual distance between myself and my crisis.” Sigh.


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