Thursday, May 7, 2009

Review of Cassandra Pybus's book, "The Woman Who Walked to Russia"

Bookends: This book got lost along the way
by Dan Davidson
The Woman Who Walked to Russia
Reviewed: May 30, 2003
By: Cassandra Pybus
Publisher: Thomas Allen Publishers
238 Pages, $24.95

"This week’s review is probably not for the faint of heart. If you had access to a collection of Bookends columns you would be hard pressed to find me spending much time saying anything nasty about a book. Generally speaking, you only see reviews of books that I got some pleasure from or that I thought were well done.
This week I’m breaking that rule.
The mysterious tale of Lillian Alling, The Woman Who Walked to Russia, has a lot of potential as a story. It could be a good historical detective story or it could be fictionalized as an effective novel. Cassandra Pybus’ book, originally published as The Raven Road, is neither of these.
Perhaps it is the change of title that misleads the reader. Pybus intended to write about Lillian Alling. Part one of the book, “Looking for Lillian” will be a good starting point for anyone else who chooses to tackle this topic, because Pybus spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out just who Alling originally was and where she might have come from. Her quest for a country of origin and the mystery woman’s real name - “Alling” really doesn’t sound particularly Russian - make good reading. I recommend the first 43 pages of this book as a pleasant exercise.
After that, well ....
I should probably mention my own quest for knowledge at this point. When I began to get really annoyed with this book (more on that later) I spent the better part of an afternoon doing internet research on both Alling and Pybus. The late Don Sawatsky wrote a pretty good article on the mystery woman back in 1997. In addition, there are quite a few other articles floating out there as well as a review of a play called “All the Way to Russia With Love” by Susan M. Flemming, which played at the Ottawa Fringe Festival in 2002.
There are a lot of references to Pybus as well, and the general laudatory tone of most of them made it still more difficult to understand how this book got into print. She’s a historian of note, a writer with controversial views, an editor and (hard nosed) critic of other peoples work. It was reading a couple of her dissections of other peoples' books that made me decide to write this column.
Having set us up for a good exploratory journey, Pybus instead serves us up a book which is mostly concerned with how she and her travelling buddy, Gerry, find out that they aren’t compatible companions after all these years. They squabble over food, sleeping arrangements, hikes in the bush and just about everything you can think of between Vancouver and Dawson City, where they finally part company. This tale is more like Pybus’ revenge than anything else and should certainly guarantee that the two keep a continent between them from now on.
Up to their arrival in Dawson, though, I was still having a bit of fun with the book, regretting what might have been, to be sure, but not ready to run.
Her first sight of Dawson, as described from a bluff above the town, doesn’t exist. There is no bluff along the Klondike Highway leading to town (it's in a valley, you see) and no way she could have taken her Pathfinder anywhere to see what she describes. Her description of the Yukon River Hostel rings true, though White Ram Bed and Breakfast will probably not be pleased by her account of that establishment.
For here on, however, it all goes to hell pretty quickly. There are places in Dawson where you can use the internet, but the Visitor Reception Centre on Front Street is not one of them. Nor is it possible to take a shower there, (though some of our summer transients have been known to wash their hair in the washroom sinks). Pybus claims to have done both.
She also claims to have spent a lot of time in the library, which she somehow fails to notice is a joint school/public facility (my wife was the teacher-librarian at that time). While there she merrily romps though books that the library doesn’t have, including a set of memoirs by John Franklin and archival quality copies of the Dawson News. Ripping through local folklore she completely dismisses as a fabrication the well-documented story of the Bishop Bompas, the Bishop Who Ate His Boots, and ventures a variety of half-baked and ill informed opinions on numerous subjects, waxing eloquently about the “one man tourist industry” built around the legend of Jack London while ignoring totally the fairly obvious references to Robert Service, Pierre Berton and an interesting Austro-Hungarian chap named Jan Welzl, who is worth a book by himself.
From the top of the Midnight Dome she manages to describe the Yukon River as “milky”, making one wonder if she ever actually looked at it, or was even here. “Murky” would be the right word most of the time as it is full of silt from rivers upstream.
Oh, she was here. I have verified this from talking to a few of the recognizable people who are described in the book. But her account of the town is downright sloppy for someone who is supposed to be a bright light on the Australian academic scene.
Later on, I met someone who had lived in Atlin for a time and had a similar litany of complaints to make about her handling of that town. If two of the places she wrote about were badly handled, I thought, how can I have any confidence in her account of the rest of the trip?
The simple answer is that I can’t, and I don’t think you should, either. This book got lost on the trail of a mystery woman, and should probably have stayed that way."

- review courtesy of Dan Davidson
Dan Davidson, who writes a book review column called Bookends and runs in the Whitehorse Star, Fort Nelson News and online at Yukonbooks.com (Mac's Fireweed Books).
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