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Outside Passage: A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood

Julia Scully <em>Souvenir Press, 240pp, £16.99</

Julia Scully's unusual childhood was not predominantly Alaskan: she was 11 when her family moved to the remote outpost of Nome; her time before this was spent in San Francisco and Seattle. It is Alaska, however, that continues to haunt her imagination and, by writing about its impact on her, Scully joins women such as Sara Wheeler and Jenny Diski who have exploited remote spaces as a backdrop to their reflections.

Outside Passage is actually a double biography, as much about Scully's mother, Rose, as it is about the author. A Jewish immigrant hindered by bad luck, Rose was forced, after her husband's suicide, to place her two young daughters in an orphanage and later in a children's home, to be recalled only once she had set up a new home in Nome. That her drive and optimism have been passed down to her daughter shines out of Scully's book; her spare prose constructs from her impoverished 1940s childhood a thing of romance and beauty.

The appeal of Outside Passage lies in its cool emotional detachment - unusual in a childhood memoir. Scully's reserved narrative voice urges the reader to draw her own conclusions from the stories told, conclusions that make for more profound reactions than a more effusive account could bear. The understatement of Scully's feelings about being left in an orphanage serves not only to show the child's love but also its opposite. The scene in which she writes of discovering her father's body after his suicide occupies no more than a paragraph, and yet we are left with a stronger, more painful picture because of the very brevity of description. This is a powerful telling of a difficult life.

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war