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
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 and you can still find it online at www.yukonweb.com/community/yukon-news/1997/may28.htmld/.
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.
Fleming, which played at the Ottawa Fringe Festival a year ago.
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 an 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 books that made me decide to write this
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, 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 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
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. 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 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
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.
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.