Outside Passage:: A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood

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9780375500831: Outside Passage:: A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood
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"Alaska, in its way, demands your full attention. Like a slap in the face, the assault of the weather, the landscape, the sheer physical effort of enduring forces memories further and further away." In Outside Passage Julia Scully regathers the memories of her childhood, and, like the strange territory and time they cover--the isolated far western Alaskan frontier before and during World War II--these memories demand our full attention. They begin with her immigrant parents' efforts to make a living during the Depression in California and the Pacific Northwest. Faced with illness and despair, Julia's father commits suicide when she is seven, and she and her older sister, Lillian, discover his body. Julia's mother then leaves her daughters in a San Francisco orphanage and goes to Alaska, searching for an economic toehold at the edge of the continent.
        Julia seeks comfort in the rituals of the orphanage--learning how to knit and darn, roller-skating outside after dinner, listening to One Man's Family on the radio. Trying to adapt, she submerges her memories: "It's not that I can't remember my mother or what it was like before . . . but I don't think about any of it because, when I do, my chest aches." Eventually, her mother buys a roadhouse--the only public place in Taylor, Alaska, it serves the settlement's small-time gold miners--and at last sends for her daughters to rejoin her.
        Despite the cold and isolation of Alaska, there are small blessings for Julia to count: secretive summer wildflowers and berries on the seemingly barren landscape, and the wild animals--reindeer, fox, and wolves--that roam the endless tundra. The young Julia serves whiskey to the rough customers who play poker at the ramshackle roadhouse, pans gold with a beguiling prospector, kisses her first boyfriend--one of the soldiers ordered to Alaska to defend against a possible Japanese invasion. As she begins to understand the mysteries of sexuality and her parents' secrets, she also begins to build the privations and the minor pleasures and the perceptions of her childhood into a platform for a wider and fuller life. In the same way, she has transformed her memories of that childhood into a written record sometimes as painful but always as beautiful as the cold, clear streams under which the gold lay hidden.

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Review:

Outside Passage is notable as much for what it doesn't say as for what it does. As this memoir opens, 11-year-old Julia Scully and her 13-year-old sister, Lillian, arrive alone in Nome, Alaska, circa 1940--a town notable for its barren extremes. Then, with the force of a jump cut, Scully rushes us further back in time and place. In San Francisco, four years earlier, on a brilliant October day, she discovers her father's dead body in their dark apartment. The instant is forever imprinted on her mind, yet the ever-reticent narrator leaves us to imagine the scene and her reaction. "I don't know what happened next or even if I saw my father there on the kitchen floor. I just remember my sister and me running ... back to the coffee shop, back to my mother, who didn't need to ask what we had found."

From the start, the author makes it clear that her recollections may well differ from others' and that she has actually changed names to protect people and their survivors. As a memoir strategy, this has a pleasing restraint. In fact, however, pain and embarrassment figure heavily in Outside Passage, as the title's pun reveals. Scully knows full well the heavy price she and her sister and mother, Rose, paid for familial silence as they searched for a livelihood and safe home in the frozen north. The author is adept at conveying bewilderment, deprivation, and above all, the sense of being stranded. And in a book filled with freighted moments, mysteries, and secrets, she clearly leads us to conclusions inaccessible to her younger self. Her sister, for example, claims to have no memory at all of their childhood. "And so I realize that I was alone," Scully writes of her teenage self. "For if she remembers none of it, then, in a way, she wasn't really there, and so there's no one, no one in this whole world, who can tell me if it is true, no one who can tell me if I remember things the way they really happened." Outside Passage paradoxically tells far more--and is far more modern--than its gushing, revelation-crammed counterparts.

From the Back Cover:

"The physical and emotional landscapes of this memoir stay in the mind. Julia Scully makes you feel that you've been to Alaska and heard the waves from the Bering Sea crash on its shores."--Jill Ker Conway

"Beautifully written, understated prose. . . . A perceptive and sensitive account."--Publishers Weekly

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