Friday, December 23, 2011

Explorer/travel writer Lawrence Millman reviews "Lillian Alling: the journey home"

Explorer, travel writer, mycologist Lawrence Millman has good things to say about my book, Lillian Alling: the journey home.

"Amy Bloom fictionalized Lilling Alling's epic journey from New York City to Siberia in her bestselling novel Away, but for years I hoped that someone would write a nonfictional account of Lillian's remarkable journey.   Now, finally, someone has done so.  Susan Smith-Josephy's book not only tells the remarkable story of that journey, but also solves some of the mysteries surrounding the so-called Mystery Woman -- solves them in a manner that Sherlock Holmes would have admired.   Lillian Alling:the journey home is a seamless blend of research, history, speculation, and storytelling.   I can't recommend it too highly!"

Lawrence Millman
-- author of Last Places, An Evening Among Headhunters, and Hiking to Siberia (forthcoming)
Visit his homepage here:

Sunday, December 11, 2011, North by Northwest, Gift Ideas For The Book Lover

I was very happy to hear Jim Brinkman from the fabulous Books and Company book store in Prince George on CBC, North by Northwest. He was interviewed about his favourite books this season and one of them was my book, "Lillian Alling: the journey home." I am grateful for Jim's recommendation.

Click the link below to hear the broadcast. My book is mentioned at 6:50. Just the fact that it was mentioned in the same sentence as Wylie Blanchet's "The Curve of Time" was thrilling.

Click HERE: | North by Northwest | Gift Ideas For The Book Lover

Also check out their list of other books. My "To Read" list just got a whole lot bigger.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I like happy endings

It's no secret that the book "Lillian Alling: the journey home" ends with her leaving Alaska, crossing the Bering Strait and landing in Siberia.

Of course that begs the question: what happened to her after that? Because I love a happy ending, in fact it's a requirement for me when I'm reading something, I ended the book so we can still hope for Lillian's safety. We can leave the book with hope that Lillian's skills, determination and dogged eccentricities were enough for her to get back home, where ever home was to her.

But in reality, I was always afraid that she met a different fate. Not only was she arriving in Siberia just as winter was coming, but she was heading into 1929 Soviet Union without a passport, as an illegal foreigner and precedent would say this would end badly.

I don't want to think that Lillian sacrificed three or more years of her life struggling to cross North America by herself just to end up starving and dying in a frozen gulag.

Information about gulag prisoners is not easy to come by. Certainly, if you have the appropriate knowledge of the person's name and identity, it might be possible that some archive will hold the truth. But because it's iffy as to whether Lillian Alling was even her real name, she is tricky to find.

Yes, searches were made by me and by professional Russian researchers and genealogists, but came up with nothing. Checking in with Russian journalists, writers, bloggers and archives revealed that the story of Lillian Alling, or even a similar story of someone crossing the Bering Strait to Siberia, was unknown.

But who knows. Perhaps someone in Russia will read "Lilian Alling: the journey home" and their grandmother will say, "oh yes, that woman, I remember her..."

Wouldn't that be a happy ending? It would indeed.

The story, character and structure of Lillian Alling: the journey home

The first thing that grabbed my attention about Lillian was the story. A solo woman traveller in the 1920s walks across North America, with the goal of going to Alaska and then crossing the Bering Strait to Siberia. Fascinating, and definitely worth looking into. Was it true? (yes) Why did she do it? (a combination of eccentricity and determination). I was hooked almost immediately.

Then, once I began looking into the facts of the story, Lillian's character began to emerge. If Lillian had been more Polly-Anna-ish, I'm guessing she wouldn't have been so fascinating to me. She was reserved, off-putting, and reticent. Yet, to the people who met her on her travels throughout British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska, she was memorable. So memorable, in fact, that their descendants still tell stories about how their father or grandfather or great uncle met the legendary Lillian Alling.

The structure of the book comes naturally from Lillian's story and character. Of course Lillian is the hero. She faces challenges and has unique characteristics that allow her to overcome those challenges. She survives in the remote wilderness of British Columbia and the Yukon, she is physically hardy, stubborn to an almost obsessive degree, and yet endearing and lovable to those who understand and empathize with her quest. She is, when we first get to know her during her arrest in 1927 an admittedly prickly woman. But after a few years more of travelling, learning to trust and accept help from the local people she meets, she ends her journey only being able to succeed with the help of others. This is how she has grown as a person, and this becomes one of her greatest strengths.

God Speed, Lillian.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Continuing Mystery of Lillian Alling

Lillian Alling's past is a mystery. Her intriguing story, for us, starts as she leaves New York in December of 1926, and crosses the border at Niagara Falls, into Canada. From there, she headed west eventually ending up in Hazelton, British Columbia. After many adventures, and many kilometres later, she made it to Nome, Alaska and then headed to Siberia. And then? We don't know.

My book about her, "Lillian Alling: the journey home," follows the Canadian and Alaska portions of her trip. But we do not know how long she had been travelling before and after that. I hope that some diligent and enthusiastic Russian researcher will take up the cause and try and find Lillian's trail after she arrived in Siberia in late 1929.

I also hope that some keen genealogist will pick up Lillian's earlier trail. Where did she come from? Poland? Russia? Estonia? Somewhere out there, someone will hold the clue to these answers. Perhaps she can be found in some unopened archive in New York, or Ontario. Or a hint could be found someone's long unread letters to a long forgotten relative.

In the meantime, I hope readers will enjoy the story of what we now know about Lillian--her time in Canada and Alaska. I loved researching about Lillian's journey, and was pleased to find new information, new stories and share them in the book. In a future blog post I'll talk a little bit more about how I found this new information. As for the book, it can be pre-ordered on Amazon ordered directly from Harbour Publishing or from me. Remember, though, if you buy it in your local book store, there are no shipping charges  and you'll be supporting a local business.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Lillian Alling research papers donated to Dawson Museum

I did a lot of research for the Lillian Alling book, and collected a lot of paper. I thought maybe future Lillian Alling researchers might be interested in what I had found.

So once the book was at the printers (it will be available for purchase online and in stores next week), I asked the Dawson City Museum if they would like to have my papers. They said yes, so I bundled everything up in this box and sent it off to them. Included in the box are books, articles and some primary documents.

Lillian Alling spent the winter of 1928-1929 in Dawson City, Yukon and her story is well-known there. In addition, the museum has a display on Lillian, and there is an historically-based performance that museum visitor can enjoy as well.

I hope that the availability of this material will encourage people to do more research on Lillian, or perhaps use the documentation I have provided as a basis for future writing, whether they be non-fiction or fiction. The Dawson City Museum staff were incredibly helpful to me during the research phase of the book, and were an invaluable resource when it came to finding images for publication. I thank them very much for being so generous with their time.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Rattlesnake mug

I got myself one of these.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Where is Polly the Parrot's Cage?

The Caribou Hotel in Carcross, Yukon is searching for the cage that belonged to Polly the Parrot (of that establishment). Jamie Toole, who is restoring the historic hotel (where Lillian Alling visited in 1928). In addition to wanting to find the cage, photos of Polly are also welcome. If you have any information or interesting stories about Polly, please write
to Jim Robb: The Colourful Five Per Cent Scrapbook - Can You Identify? c/o the Yukon News, 211 Wood Street, Whitehorse, Yukon, Y1A 2E4, or email through the News website,

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Lillian Alling book being published by Caitlin Press.

I am very pleased to announced that the book about Lillian Alling is now finished and will be published by Caitlin Press.

Caitlin titles are available from most quality bookstores in Canada and through Harbour Publishing's online shopping cart at (search keywords "Lillian Alling").
Contact me here me if you have any questions.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Oakalla Prison

Lillian Alling was sentenced to Oakalla Prison in September of 1927. Oakalla was, according to author Earl Andersen's book "A Hard Place to Do Time," not a good place to be an inmate.

For more information on Oakalla, I recommend checking out Ronald Jack's interesting blog where he outlines his work on the documentary "Oakalla" and his further research on his new film "The Ghosts of Oakalla."