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Sense of melancholia fills memoir about growing up in Nome

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Posted: Sunday, July 17, 2011 10:49 am | Updated: 1:17 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - Julia Scully was the daughter of immigrants who landed in America in the aftermath of World War I.

Her mother came out of the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire and her father arrived from Russia. She was born in San Francisco, but any chance of having a normal upbringing was lost when she and her sister came home one afternoon to find their father dead from suicide. In the wake of this loss her mother Rose set out on a search for a home, work and companionship that would take her north to Nome and nearby Taylor Creek, sometimes with the children in tow and other times with the young sisters abandoned to orphan’s homes or with unfamiliar families.

Decades after experiencing this wayward childhood she wrote about it in a 1998 memoir, “Outside Passage,” which has recently been reissued by the Snowy Owl imprint of University of Alaska Press.

Scully’s parents had been the proprietors of a series of failed eating establishments in San Francisco. At the time the Depression was in full swing and her father wasn’t an astute businessman. After his death, her mother decided to return to Nome, where she and her husband had run their sole successful business.

Julia and her sister Lillian were parked in the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum for two years with no idea when they would be retrieved. They bided their time there with school and daily chores. They also discovered for the first time that they were Jewish, one of the many things about themselves and their family that were simply never spoken of.

Their mother, meanwhile, spent time working in Nome and developing a clandestine relationship with Cappy Green, the owner of the city’s liquor store.

She eventually took over the roadhouse in Taylor Creek because of the easy profit to be made on alcohol. At this point she sent for the girls.

This interesting though uneven book is at its best when Scully describes life in the roadhouse, cut off civilization and surrounded by gold camps. It was a world of hard living men where the local white women could be counted on one hand.

She slowly became aware of human nature as she served drinks to the men, danced with them during the all night parties that took place in the roadhouse, and observed the endless poker games. “At Taylor Creek,” she writes, “there are no rules. None at all.”

During her first summer at the roadhouse she spent time with Norma, a local woman who, though married, was a libertine living alone in a small cabin.

While her mother told Julia that Norma “sleeps with men,” and made it clear that this wasn’t a good thing, she didn’t discourage the friendship.

The frequently intoxicated crowd at Taylor Creek took the two girls in as their own, and while there was some flirting and a few minor physical contacts that today would cause arrest, for the most part the girls were protected by the community.

Here, too, Julia discovered the wonders of nature, at one point stopping to stand in a creek where, she recalls, “All around me the water is bubbling over the rocky ledges and skimming the boulders. It parts around my legs, separating and joining on the other side, as if I were a rock, as if I were just another boulder in its path, as if I were meant to be there.”

It’s as close as she ever came to having an idyllic period in her childhood, and it didn’t last long. When World War II broke out the gold camps closed and the family moved back to Nome. By this time the city was booming, with American airmen delivering planes to their Soviet counterparts and other military personnel on hand to prepare for the Japanese invasion that ultimately never reached farther than Kiska Island.

Cappy’s liquor store was selling its stock as fast as the shelves could be filled, and the family settled into Cappy’s father’s house and helped run the business.

Scully’s mother never revealed to her daughters the nature of her relationship with Cappy, but late in the war the family abruptly moved to Fairbanks for what Julia later learned was an abortion. After the procedure, her mother returned to Nome, once again leaving her daughters behind with strangers.

From here things soured.

The girls returned to Nome and their mother broke things off with Cappy. Then the three made a brief return to San Francisco but didn’t stay long. Soon they were back in the North where, “In Nome, there is little surprise at our return.

No explanation is required.

... No one, after all, comes back to Nome because they want to.”

Rose eventually opened a surplus store on Nome’s Front Street and achieved a modicum of business success, but Julia determined to escape once and for all and finally experience the world beyond.

Scully writes well, and she offers a vivid and generally unappealing look at Nome. Like the majority of memoirs, there is a persistent melancholia that runs through this book. One hopes for a bit of humor to counterbalance things, but the author can find none in her experience. Her mother suppressed all emotion and all family memory, and while Scully longed to be more open to feelings, there’s a detachment in her telling that she seems unaware of. She recounts her early life, but never fully engages with it.

“Outside Passage” offers a look at Alaska late in the territorial days, as well as insight into a difficult childhood. It’s a worthwhile though erratic read by someone who was raised to suppress emotions and, it appears, still hasn’t found a way to fully express them.

Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

Outside Passage

by Julia Scully

Snowy Owl Books/University of Alaska Press 1998/2011

• 232 pages

$15.95

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