“Travel North Black Girl: A 3,000 Mile Journey in Search of Love, Peace, and Home”
By Olivia Hill. Woodneath Press. 2022. 244 pages. $19.95
“Memories had a way of tearing through my life like worn sheets, splitting in the middle,” Olivia Hill writes in her recently published memoir “Travel North Black Girl.” The line reflects her approach to the story of how she traveled from the poor neighborhoods of Kansas City to the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq village of Tatitlek, on Prince William Sound, where her then-husband was hired to be a schoolteacher in 1982.
Hill and her siblings grew up poor. Her mother was largely absent from her life, and her grandmother, who she referred to as “mom,” raised them. A complex woman, she emerges from these pages as both a daunting disciplinarian and a sage fully dedicated to the wellbeing of children she didn’t ask for but took responsibility over.
Chapters in this book shift back and forth between that childhood and Tatitlek. Split in the middle, as Hill alluded. The childhood recollections give readers glimpses into Hill’s life that help place into context her stoicism during her difficult winter in the village. Rare were the times she had sovereignty over her own life, a condition that persisted into early adulthood and followed her into Tatitlek.
Hill arrived in Alaska at the age of 22, newly married. Her husband, Seth, was a Jewish Peace Corps veteran whose father had disowned him for the marriage, while his longtime friends, such as they were, sought to draw him away from her. Hill writes that he was obsessed with helping the less fortunate, and she sometimes wondered if he married her as a project rather than for love.
The couple came north so Seth could seek work, and also, as so many do, to escape their own pasts and build a new future. Like so many who come to Alaska with such illusions, they quickly learned the folly of thinking this possible. A tiny Alaska village accessible only by air and water is not the best place to test a marriage already strained by forces beyond it.
It’s in the village that Hill’s memories flow. For most of the year she was without work while Seth slid out of the marriage and into his career. Left mostly to herself, Hill became an observer of and sometimes participant in the life of the community, and events there always drew her back to her origins.
Much like the neighborhood she grew up in, village residents were related to each other in countless ways. In both cases this created crucial support systems, but also exposed children and adults alike to abuses at the hands of those closest to them. Alcoholism and domestic violence tore at the social fabric. “The apathy of the adults on all levels that were supposed to care about these children was the biggest crime,” Hill proclaims, reflecting on the limited efforts in both places aimed at alleviating the suffering of the most vulnerable.
Hill herself is a survivor of sexual abuse, which she recounts frankly. She briefly discusses the ways that some men — and especially some white men — have long viewed Black women’s bodies as something they are entitled to take advantage of. It’s a topic that has become more public in recent years. Hill’s approach depends mostly on the experience of victimization itself, whether as a young girl molested by a family member or a young adult employee sexually exploited by her white boss. Hill, using her own early life as example, is less concerned with telling readers what they should think about these things than with simply placing them in the position where they have no choice but to think about them and go from there. It’s one of many topics Hill leaves her readers thinking about, with no easy answers.
One shouldn’t get the impression that it was all alcohol and abuse in Tatitlek. Far from it. Much as in Kansas City, community life mostly carried on despite the problems, and there was ample warmth. In those pre-internet days, Alaska was far more isolated than now, and residents had only each other. The town had but one phone, and calls could be difficult to place. Hill often called her grandmother, but mostly she was on her own, especially as Seth grew more distant. “Isolation and loneliness can be a slow suffocation,” she writes. “It requires routine to survive.” Routine is what she kept up, and what kept her up.
“Being Black in KC meant being confined like a rat in a maze with invisible boundary lines,” she states at one point. In Tatitlek this was true for her as well. But it was also true for the villagers themselves relative to the wider world, or even the rest of Alaska, a point Hill makes late in the book in a confrontation with the village council president.
This short but multi-layered memoir opens up discussions of race, of the significant commonalities and deep differences between disparate peoples struggling to maintain their identities and humanity in a culture that often disdains them, of complex interpersonal relationships, and of how growing up poor and Black in the inner city prepared Hill for life in a remote Alaska Native village.
It’s also beautifully written. Hill, who has gone on to be a short story writer and playwright, has a marvelous style and a sly sense of humor that frequently surfaces. “Most days were rainy and cloudy, or cloudy and rainy,” she notes forlornly at one point. Mosquitoes in Fairbanks are “a squadron of Kamikazes.” And in one of her most beautifully evocative lines, she describes the first snowfall of the season. “Each flake was huge and fluttered with the flirtation of fake white eyelashes.” She captures Alaska in ways that ring true regardless of a reader’s background.
Olivia Hill was deeply challenged by her first stay in Alaska, but also liberated. She left Tatitlek as an independent woman for the first time in her life. “Travel North Black Girl” is remarkable and unlike anything in Alaska literature. Now we need the rest of her story.