Lillian Alling

The Journey Home

Susan Smith-Josephy

In 1926, Lillian Alling, a European immigrant, set out on a journey home from New York. She had little money and no transportation, but plenty of determination. In the three years that followed, Alling walked all the way to Dawson City, Yukon, crossing the North American continent on foot. She walked across the Canadian landscape, weathering the baking sun and freezing winter, crossed the rugged Rocky Mountains and hiked the untested wilderness of British Columbia and the Yukon. Finally, on a make-shift raft, she sailed alone down the Yukon River from Dawson City all the way to the Bering Sea.

Lillian Alling is a legend. She has been the subject of novels, plays, epic poems, an opera and more tall tales than can be remembered. Her life has been subjected to speculation, fiction, and exaggeration. But as legendary as she may be, the true story of Lillian Alling has never been told. “The Mystery Woman,” as she came to be known, is as intriguing to us now as she was to those she met on her trek. Lillian’s name lives on in the folk tales of British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska, but her life leading up to her journey and what waited for her at home in Eastern Europe still remains a shadowy mystery.

Lillian Alling: The Journey Home is a collection of personal documents, first-hand recollections, family tales and archival research that provide tantalizing new clues to Lillian’s story. Smith-Josephy places Lillian firmly in the context of history and among the cast of unique and colourful characters she met along her journey.

The Mystery of Lillian Alling’s Origins

 

Most people living in North America today, with the exception of indigenous peoples, are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. Many of us are familiar with the immigrant story: the push away from the old country as the result of economic pressures, social and political oppression or religious persecution and the trip across the Atlantic or Pacific fraught with dangers, discomfort, illness and sometimes death. In this myth, the huge step of leaving one’s homeland then surviving the ordeal of an ocean crossing was rewarded by a tidy reception at some immigration depot like Ellis Island or perhaps Halifax’s Pier 21. Then, once the individual was legitimized in the new country of choice, the heroic story culminated in the  struggle to settle, raise a family, adapt and succeed. This is the successful North American dream.

Certainly this immigrant experience is usually painted as positive. But for some people, leaving home and facing the overwhelming challenges of a new country can become an intolerable situation from which they must escape. So what happens to those immigrants who do not succeed on the terms of the new country? What of the newcomers who just do not fit in, who reject the culture and mores of their new land? For them the dream has been rendered meaningless or has turned into a nightmare. They must either endure a life of misery in their adopted country or return home. Between 1908, when US immigration authorities began keeping records on departures, and 1920, three out of every eight immigrants returned home to their native lands. And by the Great Depression of the 1930s, more people were returning home than entering the country.

From the few words Lillian Alling spoke on that subject, it appears that she had a hard time as an immigrant so she chose to return to Europe. Her drive to return home was not that unusual. It was the length and scope of her journey that were different than most. She chose to walk back to Europe and to minimize her ocean crossing to the 50 miles (80 kilometres) between Alaska and Siberia. Did she really walk from New York to Alaska through Canada and eventually end up in Siberia? Yes, she did. Her story, in fact, spans the globe—from Europe, across the Atlantic, across the whole North American continent and then across the Bering Strait to Asia.

Improvements in transportation and communication made her journey possible. The popularity of motor vehicle travel had necessitated the construction of highways and roads. Railways had been built from coast to coast, and even though she never travelled by train as far as is known, the rail lines provided pathways where roads did not exist. The telegraph, and the telegraph lines in particular, gave her a trail to follow through the wilderness of northern British Columbia. But although it is known that she sometimes accepted a ride and she used boats where necessary, for the most part history has recorded that she made the entire trip using the oldest mode of transport: walking.

Much has been written but so little known about this enigmatic woman who undertook a remarkable journey. Newspaper accounts, magazine articles, books, radio plays, even an opera have been written about her. Very little is known about Alling. She has been romanticized to such an extent that it is becoming increasingly hard to separate the fact, what little there is, from the fiction.

That is why this new book is worth reading. Lillian Alling: The Journey Home, written by Susan Smith-Josephy and recently published by B.C.”˜s Caitlin Press. In this 255-page book, the author has made a genuine and thorough effort of searching for the facts and sifting through the accounts to reveal who Alling really was.

Yukon News

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.

— Pearlann Reichwein, BC Studies

Susan Smith-Josephy talks to CBC North by Northwest