Friday, July 16, 2010

Why A Lillian Alling Book Club?

Odysseus, Marlowe, Bilbo Baggins. Not characters that are often compared in the same sentence, but they share one important attribute: each of them undertakes a great quest. The objects of their quests are different, but all three eventually find themselves driven to obsession by their quarry.

Lillian Alling also embarked on a quest, but unlike these three, no one knows why. And, also unlike these three, Lillian Alling was female, twentieth century, and actually existed.

Lillian was a real person and really did undertake an epic journey alone into an unforgiving landscape with no experience and no supplies. Her story is quite literally of mythic proportions – so much so that it’s no wonder that it has been the inspiration for fiction and non-fiction books, graphic novels, movie scripts, and now an opera.

Lillian’s remarkable journey and the scope of her influence led VO to work with VPL to compile this list of suggested reading. This book list is not so much an introduction to the Lillian Alling opera, but more of a companion.

In this list you will find books about the immigrant experience; true stories of women adventurers; historical works about BC; and of course, books about Lillian Alling herself. Through these titles, you’ll learn what life was like in a New York City tenement in the early 20th century, and understand how difficult it really was to live in BC’s untamed wilderness. You’ll also encounter such personalities as Ida Pfeiffer, described as “a little lady among cannibals”; Ada Blackjack, the “female Robinson Crusoe”; and Beryl Markham, a 1930s bush pilot who was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west – and could “write rings around” Hemingway, as Hemingway himself admitted.

Reading these titles has given us at VO a greater appreciation of exactly what Lillian Alling went through as she made her way from crowded, noisy Ellis Island, across the continent and into the wilds of the Telegraph Trail. We hope it will do the same for you!

Have a look at:

The Immigrant Experience

Between Two Worlds: The Canadian Immigrant Experience - Edited by Milly Charon (1988)
This collection of Canadian immigrant experience biographies are the search for a better life and a place to belong. It is a testament to the courage and perseverance of those who resettled here and the hardships they faced. The voices are genuine and honest throughout.

Land Newly Found: Eyewitness Accounts of the Canadian Immigrant Experience - Norman Hillmer (2006)
No one expects stories of tragedy and genocide to be a part of the Canadian immigrant experience, but that is what we discover from the accounts of some well-known and lesser known Canadians dating back to the early 19th century.

Shutting out the sky: life in the tenements of New York, 1880-1924 - Deborah Hopkinson (2003)
Photographs and text document the experiences of five young people who arrived in America from Belarus, Italy, Lithuania, and Romania during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and came to live in the Lower East Side of New York City.

Through their stories, a rich portrait of why immigrants left their homelands and how they dealt with life in a new and strange country is revealed including a number of Jacob Riis’ famous images.

Shutting Out the Sky was a 2004 International Reading Association's Teachers' Choice and will appeal to both children (grade 5-12) and their parents.

Women Travelers on a Quest

Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women who Explored the World - Milbry Polk & Mary Tiegreen (2001)
Women of Discovery… is truly a gathering of heroines, documenting more than 80 extraordinary explorers and adventurers filled with courage, talent, intelligence and sheer determination. These women visionaries expanded the world’s body of knowledge.

Wayward Women: A Guide to Women Travellers - Jane Robinson (1990)
This is an essential reference work for armchair explorers who will appreciate the list of first hand travel accounts of three hundred and fifty, known and unknown women travelers, spanning sixteen centuries. The guide includes appendixes, maps and geographical indexes.

Women Travellers: A Century of Trailblazing Adventures 1850-1950 - Christel Mounchard (2007)
From Ida Pfeiffer, described as “a little lady among cannibals”, to Fanny Bullock Workman, who attempted cycling around the world in 1889, comes a collection of unconventional women adventurers from five continents, which will surely inspire.

The Mapmaker’s Wife - Robert Whitaker (2004)
In the early years of the 18th century, a band of French scientists set off on a daring, decade-long expedition to South America in a race to measure the precise shape of the earth.

This is the story of Isabel Grames, who became stranded in the Amazon--an epic love story that unfolds against the backdrop of the greatest expedition the world has ever known.

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic - Jennifer Niven (2003)
In 1923 controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson sent four young men and Ada Blackjack into the far North to colonize uninhabited Wrangel Island. They took with them six months' worth of supplies but as winter set in, they were struck by hardship and tragedy.

Upon Ada's miraculous return after two years on the island, the international press heralded her as the female Robinson Crusoe, but she refused to talk to anyone about her harrowing experiences. Only on one occasion -- after being accused of a horrible crime she did not commit -- did she speak up for herself. Jennifer Niven narrates this remarkable true story filled with adventure and fascinating history.

Women as Solo Travellers; Explorers; Adventurers

The Curve of Time - M. Wylie Blanchet (1990)
M. Wylie Blanchet has accompanied many a seafarer on the B.C. coast with this bestselling book which introduces us to a resilient, adventurous, and enigmatic woman ahead of her time. Widowed in 1926, Blanchet cruised the coast in her 25-foot boat, the Caprice, with her five children and their dog.

Blanchet’s lyrically written account reads like fantastic fiction but her adventures are all very real. There are dangers—rough water, bad weather, wild animals—but there is also the quiet respect and deep peace of a woman teaching her children the wonder and depth of the natural world.

West with the Night - Beryl Markham (1942)
A beautifully crafted book, with some of the most poetic prose passages imaginable, resonating with a stately and timeless quality so absent in our modern life. Born in England in 1902, Markham was taken by her father to East Africa in 1906.

In the 1930s she became an African bush pilot, and in September 1936, became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. "Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people's stories, are absolutely true . . . I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book."--Ernest Hemingway

Winter Shoes in Springtime - Beryl Smeeton
Beryl Smeeton was a rare combination of intrepid traveler and entertaining writer, and she made astonishing journeys as a young woman in the 1930s. After the restrictions of an Edwardian girlhood, she cherished the freedom to travel alone and became a globetrotter on an epic scale.

Just before the Second World War, she completed two remarkable journeys: a thousand-mile trek on horseback in the eastern foothills of the Andes; and a hike through the hilly jungles of Burma and Thailand. This is the first book about her travels.

No Place for a lady: Tales of adventurous Women Travellers - Barbara Hodgson (2003)
Centuries of intrepid women who ventured away from home, tell their tales, highlighting the era’s travel literature and guides with period illustrations that add flavour to narratives that are already riveting. Each tale is supported with additional notes and bibliography.

Tamara: Memoirs of St. Petersburg, Paris, Oxford and Byzantium - Tamara Talbot Rice (1996)
This autobiography charts Tamara Talbot Rice’s travels over a lifetime; a dazzlingly privileged childhood in St. Petersburg during pre-revolutionary Russia; an émigré penury in London and Paris; Oxford in the Brideshead… years; pioneering digs in Istanbul and academic life in Edinburgh.

Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman - Alice Steinbach (2000) Boston Sun journalist, Alice Steinbach, uses self-addressed postcards to capture and preserve her spontaneous impressions of her travels throughout Europe. Connecting emotionally with the cities that she visits allows for self-discovery along the way.

Legend of Lillian Alling

Wild West Women: Travellers, Adventurers, and Rebels - Rosemary Neering (2000)
Recently awarded the 2001 Van City Book Prize, this book proves how the west was really won - through the strength and determination of women.

From the introduction: “Living in New York and hating it, Lillian Alling decided to walk home to Russia via British Columbia, Alaska and Siberia, and nothing – not exhaustion, not hunger, not a jail term – could deter her.” See pp 210 – 218 Chapter: The Most Determined Person I’d Ever Met: Women Not to be Deterred

Away - Amy Bloom (2007)
Panoramic in scope, Away is the epic and intimate story of young Lillian Leyb, a dangerous innocent, an accidental heroine. When her family is destroyed in a Russian pogrom, Lillian comes to America alone, determined to make her way in a new land.

When word comes that her daughter, Sophie, might still be alive, Lillian embarks on an odyssey that takes her from the world of the Yiddish theater on New York’s Lower East Side, to Seattle’s Jazz District, and up to Alaska, along the fabled Telegraph Trail toward Siberia. All of the qualities readers love in Amy Bloom’s work–her humour and wit, her elegant and irreverent language, her unflinching understanding of passion and the human heart–come together in the embrace of this brilliant novel, which is at once heartbreaking, romantic, and completely unforgettable.

The woman who walked to Russia - Cassandra Pybus (2002)
Desperate with homesickness, Lillian Alling haunted the New York Public Library studying maps to establish the most direct route home to her native Russia. Her English was poor, but she understood cartography. In the spring of 1927, aided only by a hand-drawn map, she started to walk..."From the moment Cassandra Pybus heard of Alling's incredible trek, she could not get the story out of her mind.

Was it possible that this young immigrant woman had walked thousands of kilometers across America?” Pybus, an award-winning Australian writer, searched for clues about this enigmatic pedestrian but when her sleuthing yielded little, she set out to trace Lillian's route. The delightful result is a frank and entertaining travel narrative as the author and her reluctant travel companion embark on an adventure through the wilderness and rich history of B.C. piecing together Alling's journey.

BC Connections

Cougar Annie's Garden - Margaret Horsfield (1999)
Surrounded by tall trees and taller tales, Cougar Annie’s garden is a legend on the west coast of Vancouver Island. In 1915, the tough, wily pioneer known as Cougar Annie arrived on the coast. The five-acre garden she cleared in the rainforest became her lifeblood, her burden, her passion.

Here she bore eight children, outlived four husbands and may even have shot one of them. As she grew old, Cougar Annie’s garden became radically overgrown; it seemed doomed to die with her. Against all odds, it has been restored, and blooms again in the wilderness. Margaret Horsfield’s book is a heart-lifting story of stubborn achievement and of an enduring love of the land.

The Concubine’s Children: Portrait of a Family Divided - Denise Chong (1994)This superbly told saga of family loyalties and disaffections reads more like a novel than an actual chronicle of Chan Sam, a Chinese peasant who left his family in 1913 to seek his fortune in the "Gold Mountain" of western Canada. There, though always planning to return to them, he set up a second family with the beautiful, headstrong concubine he brought with him from China. The story is narrated in the third person by his granddaughter, a Canadian economist, who creates an unsentimental portrait of both families.

Although Chan Sam never fulfilled his dream of returning to his home-family, after his death, the author made the pilgrimage to China to embrace the relatives she had never known.

Swamp Angel - Ethel Wilson (1954)
Ethel Wilson's finest novel follows Maggie Vardoe's movement from an unhappy marriage toward the vision she gains by re-establishing her own identity. Maggie's flight from Vancouver into the BC interior symbolizes her return to the natural world of time, change and mortality. Through serene passages of natural description and quiet evocations of Maggie's strength, Wilson makes her character's transformation seem to arise naturally but also dramatically out of her circumstances; like its protagonist, Swamp Angel moves quietly but with assurance toward its realization.

Frontier Spirit - The Brave Women of the Klondike - Jennifer Duncan (2004)She may have been holding a gun, or an axe, or her hiked-up skirts, but she was there, in the Klondike of the Gold Rush. And her decision to venture everything on the dream of northern gold was in every way bolder and riskier than any man’s.

In Frontier Spirit, Jennifer Duncan celebrates the lives of women who, in defiance of traditional expectations, left their homes, their families, and their professions, to make the arduous journey through a punishing climate and unfamiliar wilderness to seek their fortunes in the Klondike.

Many tender ties: women in fur-trade society in western Canada, 1670 – 1870 - Sylvia van Kirk (1980)
Now nearly thirty years old, Sylvia Van Kirk's Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 represents one of the first, and arguably still one of the best, of its period's numerous attempts to "recover" the lost, forgotten, or slighted history of North American women.

Sexual encounters between Indian women and the fur traders of the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies are generally thought to have been casual and illicit in nature. This illuminating book reveals instead that Indian-white marriages, sanctioned "after the custom of the country," resulted in many warm and enduring family unions. These were profoundly altered by the coming of the white women in the 1820s and 1830s.

Historical References

Gateway to Liberty: the Story of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island - Mary J. Shapiro (1986)
This documentary record of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, standing side by side in New York’s harbour for more than a century recounts Liberty, unveiled on Bedloe’s Island, in 1886, and six years later, the first federal landing depot for immigrants opened on Ellis Island.

A Short History of Oakalla, 1912-1991 - Earl Andersen (1992)
This is a small and richly illustrated history of a BC provincial detention centre, Oakalla, originally known as the Oakalla Prison Farm which opened on September 2, 1912 with 23 inmates, and eventually peaked at 1,269 prisoners in 1962-63.

Hard Place to do Time - Earl Andersen (1993)
Once a gaol, a remand centre, and an execution chamber, the Oakalla Prison in Burnaby, BC served multiple roles. This account traces the historical facts of the many dramatic incidents that occurred throughout its seventy nine year history.

Alex Lord's British Columbia: Recollections of a Rural School Inspector, 1915-36 - Edited by John Calam (1991)
Alex Lord, a pioneer inspector of rural BC schools, shares in these recollections his experiences in a province barely out of the stage coach era. Travelling through vast northern territory, utilizing unreliable transportation, and enduring climatic extremes, Lord became familiar with the aspiration of remote communities and their faith in the humanizing effects of tiny assisted schools. John Calam has organized the memoirs according to the regions through which Lord travelled.

Flapjacks and Photographs: A History of Mattie Gunterman, Camp Cook and Photographer - Henri Robideau (1995)
A chronicler of the early 1900’s, Mattie’s lively photos of mining and logging camps, staged shots and panoramas are reminders of a bygone era in rural British Columbia.

From Riverboats to Railroads - Emma Bateman Lindstrom (1992)
Riverboats on the Skeena River, building of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad, and the men responsible for the telegraph line, frame this memoir of an early settler west of Terrace, British Columbia, from 1905 to 1948.

Pioneer Legacy: Chronicles of the Lower Skeena River - Norma V Bennett (1997 – 2000)
Celebrating the Skeena, a grand and dangerous river, this book pays tribute to the rugged individuals, native peoples, settlers, and adventurers, who travelled, explored, lived and died along its turbulent 350-mile length.

~ Jennifer Lord, Special Projects Manager