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Lillian Alling: The Journey Home

By Susan Smith-Josephy

Review By PearlAnn Reichwein

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 176 Winter 2012-2013  | p. 175-6

In 1929, Lillian Alling reached the coast of Alaska on her way to Siberia. Her three-year walk across North America began in New York City and ended at Cape Wales where her footsteps disappeared after nearly 10 thousand kilometers. Did she ever get to Siberia? The diaries of formal expeditions are noticeably absent from the story of an obscure working-class Polish immigrant who was likely a domestic worker in Toronto and New York. The book frames Alling’s walk as a persistent journey home, rather than a heroic epic. Her journey is not singularized but well situated amid reports of other walkers, including women, who crossed through BC to points north, often following Aboriginal trails or railways prior to road systems. Some solo travellers sought media notoriety, but Alling tried to avoid publicity on a migration far more private than public.

Smith-Josephy rigorously excavates many local voices that commented on Alling, and, simultaneously, the geographies along her route. Stories of Alling’s journey unfold other narratives about people and place. Her trip along the Telegraph Trail from Hazelton to Atlin garnered local attention and news coverage. Alling was observed most in regions with few people. In sparsely populated districts, Alling stood out on her quest to reach Siberia and news travelled quickly up the telegraph line despite a lack of roads. She left few traces of herself. As a traveller, her story exists as an intertextual narrative told by others in newspapers, memoirs, recollections, and legends. It’s also documented in records of her interactions with border officers, police, judges, and jails. Sidebars, maps, and references support the main text, along with excellent archival photo illustrations depicting the route.

The author carefully probes and tests the many accounts of Alling’s journey. Her research investigation through archival records, genealogy, fieldwork, and other sources is explicit. Combined methodologies engage readers in historical and speculative detective work that will appeal to mystery solvers through popular history. Bizarre stories persisted about Alling carrying a stuffed dog on her trip north. Fictitious first-person accounts of meeting Alling were also concocted by professional writers as Smith-Josephy’s literary analysis posits. Her careful deconstruction of tall tales, legends, and myths is astute and well researched.

How did Alling’s story end? Smith-Josephy hypothesizes that Alling reached eastern Siberia only to arrive amid Soviet turmoil. Here the author takes account of Indigenous travellers from the Chukotka Peninsula who frequented both sides of the Bering Strait and acted as ferrymen, but stops short of Indigenous oral history sources, which future research might uncover. Based on Chukchi travel patterns, stories of contemporaneous travellers, and unexpected information, the author speculates Alling reached her goal. Legends of Alling’s journey by foot and the discursive production of historic geographies along her route are reminders of global patterns of migration and intercontinental travel among the working class. Solo travellers in northern environments were woven into wide social networks and cross-cultural interactions inflected by class, gender, region, technology, and the state as stories of Lillian Alling underscore.

Lillian Alling: The Journey Home
By Susan Smith-Josephy 
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2011 272 pp., $24.95