Sunday, July 15, 2007

"an orphan, a widow, and the mother of a dead child, for which there's not even a special word"

A few years ago i read The Woman who Walked to Russia: a writer's search for a lost legend by Cassandra Pybus. Pybus was browsing a bookshop while traveling through Northern British Columbia when she first heard of Lillian Alling, a woman purported to have walked from New York to Alaska on her way to Siberia in 1927. There were bits and pieces of the legend to be found here and there that told how Lillian, a Russian immigrant, homesick, had haunted the New York Public Library hand copying maps and then somehow made her way across the country's railways to then follow the overland telegraph trail, on foot, through sub-arctic Canada and Alaska.

The splinters of this woman's saga took hold in Pybus' mind in a way that would not let her rest until she knew whole of the tale. Once she got back to her home in Australia she researched Alling and only found more pieces, ever more enticing. Eventually she is decides to take her own road trip to try and retrace Lillian's steps and in the end it is not until she is on her flight back home that she incidentally finds the truth. It is an interesting narrative of one woman's search for another woman's single-minded journey that took me over some of the familiar territory of my youth.

Away first appealed to me because i had read some of Amy Bloom's stories and liked her style. It was described as the story of a "dangerous, accidental heroine" whose family is slaughtered in a Russian pogrom and then comes to make a new life in America where she starts out in a yiddish theatre, moves on to the Jazz District of Seattle and then travels up through the Yukon. It somehow took me by surprise once Lillian Leyb hopped that train from New York and her story started resembling details of Lillian Alling's trek. At one point i had to flip to the acknowledgements in the back to find that Pybus' The Woman Who Walked to Russia was indeed mentioned. For me, making this woman flesh and blood and giving her motivations that i had previously not understood made both books all the more valuable (Lillian Leyb is looking for the daughter she had thought dead, but now believes alive.)

I'm not sure that calling this Lillian an accidental, dangerous heroine is entirely apt. She is not the most likable protagonist i have ever read. In many ways she has left her soul back with her dead loved ones in Russia (if she ever had it to begin with, sometimes it is a little difficult to tell~though perhaps that makes her tale all the more poignant.) It is a rather brutal novel to read but it is told with an honest and clear voice that i found enjoyable. I loved that Bloom told the fate of each person that had touched Lillian's life when she saw them for the last time, it was a touch of omniscience that did not seem out of place~that is quite a feat for a writer to pull off. With a few caveats i would recommend this one.

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