Subtitled, A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood, this spare, compelling work recalls young Julia's difficult and unusual life in a splintered family living "at the edge of the world." When Julia was born in 1929 the family had just moved to Seattle and entered an economic crisis--"somehow, my father had been bilked out of their money." (17) The marriage went downhill as poverty and the father's serious illness compounded an underlying conjugal incompatibility.

Julia was only seven years old when she and her older sister Lillian found their father dead--a suicide. "Nothing is said about how my father died, or even, in fact, that he is dead." (8) Not long thereafter Julia's mother, Rose, without any explanation or advance warning, left the girls at the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum; there they remained for two years. Rose went to Nome, Alaska to try to find work. "Meanwhile, I strive to be a model orphan. I do all my chores . . . I'm quiet, do well in school, am extremely polite. And most of the time, I'm afraid." (33)

There follows another stay in a different orphanage. Here "I never hear my name . . . No one ever touches me. And, in my memory of that time, that place, I am always alone." (72) Finally, they join their mother again in a remote mining outpost of Alaska where Rose operates a roadhouse. Moving with the seasons back and forth between the outpost and the city of Nome, Julia's life takes on a semblance of normalcy. The environment is strange but interesting, the men who frequent the roadhouse are rough but friendly--there is a sense of camaraderie.

As Julia reaches puberty she becomes subliminally aware of a relationship between her mother and the owner of the Nome liquor store, Cappy. Cappy is married--his family is back in Seattle. There is never any open display of affection between Cappy and Rose, but he eats his meals with them and is almost a surrogate father to Julia and her sister. Suddenly Rose decides to move the family to Fairbanks. Here there is a "secret scenario" that Julia only pieces together many years later. As the events unfold in Fairbanks, Julia knows only that her mother is "distracted, not there." And that a man "carrying a small black satchel" comes to the house and leaves her mother moaning in bed.

Once more, Rose leaves her now teenaged children behind as she returns to Nome. It is wartime and Lillian and Julia find jobs at the military base in Fairbanks. As suddenly as they came to Fairbanks, they are summoned back to Nome--no questions asked, no explanations given. Cappy's son is missing in action. Once again, Julia cannot understand the silence, the absence of grief displayed--"Isn't anybody sad? Isn't anybody upset?" (181) Rose's relationship with Cappy quietly ends.

As Julia finishes high school she fantasizes about leaving Nome, going to college, becoming a journalist--fantasies inspired by Rosalind Russell's role in the film, His Girl Friday, and by Sinclair Lewis's critique of small town life in the novel, Main Street. "I begin to discern, vaguely, tentatively, that somewhere there exists a world where the accepted language is the one that Sinclair Lewis speaks--a language of ideas and, even, of feelings." (212) Indeed, as the book jacket notes, the author graduated from Stanford and became a magazine editor; she lives in Manhattan.


Scully's memoir is poetic, absorbing, and instructive. In addition to chronicling alternating abandonment and care, life in a harsh and unusual natural environment, and coming of age, the memoir explores the impact of silence and suppression of emotion, and the importance of memory in validating experience. For Scully it is the articulation of memories in the creation of a narrative that allows a life story and its accompanying feelings to be certified as having some sort of reality. Julia's sister, Lillian, "has no memories of her childhood at all. And so I realize I was alone." (204)

Told from a child's perspective, in the present tense, the book is extremely effective in conveying a child's vague, confused perception of "grown-up" goings-on. In addition, Scully portrays well the almost complete inability of a child to imagine the emotional life of a parent. In exploring her memories Scully reconstitutes not only her own childhood, but also her mother's life during that period. Realizing many years later that the events in Fairbanks represented a crisis for Rose--she was pregnant and was forced to obtain an abortion--the author can gain some understanding of her mother's state of mind as well as an explanation for her own confusion at the time.

Outside Passage would be a useful work for studies of childhood trauma, family relationships, gender roles, and female sexuality. In addition it provides an interesting description of life on the Alaskan frontier during the Depression and World War II.


Random House

Place Published

New York



Page Count