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Bookends: Unravelling the Legend of Lillian Alling August 2, 2012

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Unravelling the Legend of Lillian Alling
By Dan Davidson
June 6, 2012
– 812 pages –

Lillian Alling: The Journey Home
By Susan Smith-Josephy
Caitlin Press
256 pages
$24.95

If Jim Robb had been around to invent the notion of the Colourful 5% in 1926, Lillian Alling would certainly have been high on his list of characters. Alling arrived in Canada from the state of New York in 1926, having previously spent some time in Canada from about 1915 to 1921, after emigrating from somewhere in Eastern Europe.
She is variously indentified as being Polish or Russian. After having spent a few years in both the USA and Canada, she decided she wanted to go home, though we don’t know just where that was. Since maps showed that the Bering Strait was a lot narrower than the Atlantic Ocean she decided to walk across the Canadian part of North America, up through British Columbia and the Yukon, into Alaska and out to Prince of Wales (where Sarah Palin actually could see Russia if she were there). From there she apparently hoped to be able to hitch a ride across the Bering Strait. When she was asked where she was going, and actually replied, the answer was always “Siberia”.
Depending on where she was actually from, she would then have had an even more daunting walk across an empire in the grip of Stalinism, where you needed “papers” just to move from one place to another.
We don’t know if she ever made it to Provideniya in Siberia. Lawrence Millman, who is also fascinated with her story, has written a lovely little fantasy about finding her grave there, which he read at the Live Words event in Whitehorse in April.
Alling has been the subject of novels, plays, epic poems, articles (the late Don Sawatsky, Millman and others) and even a graphic novel (Lillian the Legend by Kerry Byrne). As Smith-Josephy discovered during her extensive researches, there have been a great many people interested in Alling’s story and there are a great many conflicting eyewitness accounts of her travels. Smith-Josephy makes a valiant effort at reconciling the conflicts and winnowing out the kernels of truth from the chaff of legend.
Yes, Lillian is legendary. Her motives were and are unknown. She didn’t seem to have had a great deal of facility with the English language and so could not explain herself, nor is it at all clear that she would have wanted to if she could have. She seems the very definition of a person who “does not play well with others”.
While she showed great tenacity and endurance during her long trek, it is clear that she received timely assistance along the way, not the least of which was the decision taken in September of 1927 to arrest her and put her in prison for the winter in order to keep her from killing herself in the bush north of Hazelton, British Columbia. This meant that she was able to travel in weather that would not kill her. Something similar kept her in Dawson City during the winter of 1928, where she worked at a number of jobs and doesn’t seem to have endeared herself to very many people.
There is little confusion in this section, though I think it comes from a failure to link antecedents rather than a failure of research. Lillian worked at the St. Paul’s Hostel, which housed non-native children, or “children of mixed parentage” (as Smith-Josephy puts it) who were attending the Dawson Public School. The sidebar in which all this is explained has the Dawson Public School closing in 1952, along with the hostel. This is incorrect, as the two institutions were not joined at the hip. The DPS burned down some years later and was replaced by the Dawson Elementary-High School, which eventually became the Robert Service School.
The informational sidebars are a positive feature of this book, by the way, providing context and background on communities and institutions without interrupting the narrative to do so.
The book is a personal journey as well as a historical investigation and so he author shares with us her trials and discoveries as well as the various interpretations that could come from the conflicting data.
In the interests of full disclosure I must confess that I played a small part in bringing this book into being. Smith-Josephy read my review of that dreadful book about Lillian Alling written by Australian academic Cassandra Pybus (The Woman Who Walked to Russia), included a copy of my article on her website (with permission) and eventually asked me, back in 2010, to read over some of the Yukon and Dawson City portions of her manuscript, basically the rough drafts of chapters 7 through 9 of this book. I have been looking forward to seeing the finished product ever since.

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