A strange and singular search for traces of a woman rumored to have walked from New York City to Siberia some 75 years ago.
This much is (maybe) known: During the years 1927 and 1928, a woman by the name of Lillian Alling traveled north on foot along the underconstruction telegraph line that would eventually run through British Columbia, the Yukon, Alaska, and on to Siberia. Homesick for her native land, the diminutive Russian had walked from New York, scantily provisioned and clad. Hard facts concerning this far-north legend were just as scant, Australian writer Pybus learns. Pybus tries to settle a few questions before she leaves her Tasmanian home, plowing into genealogical and immigration records that lead her to decide Alling was probably a Jewish woman fleeing the traumatized shtetls of the Pale to end up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Unimpressed, she headed home, but why, oh why, the author asks in her easy, agreeable voice, why walk? Why return to Russia at the dawn of two decades of Stalinist repression? Pybus embarks on a road trip following Alling’s ever-fainter tracks. Her volatile, adventurous traveling companion Gerry provides much of the color commentary, offering advice like, “Ya gotta learn to take risks, Cassandra. Do the unexpected. Need to get your knickers in a twist.” But Gerry has some food issues (she likes her laxatives), and her attitude begins to grate on her friend’s nerves. While Gerry complains that “the trouble with this country is that it is so fucking empty,” Pybus is enthralled by the landscape and its social/environmental history, which she serves forth in modest, irresistible portions. Along the way, the Alling legend proves incapable of sustaining scrutiny, and a more reasonable explanation emerges.
The whole project is just unhinged enough to provide one of those gladdening, unself-consciously idiosyncratic travel narratives that are all too rare.