It was the title that first attracted me, so many years ago. What adventure-hungry 13-year-old girl could resist On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers? My first love, Huck Finn, was overthrown within minutes. He was just a boy who had floated down a river on a raft; this was a young woman, a heroine, who had braved wolves, bandits and terrible hardships in a noble cause. And it was a true story! I longed to be Kate Marsden and ride through the Siberian wastes, a handsome Russian officer at my side. It was not to be: the book, borrowed from an elderly aunt, vanished during a house move and eventually real life supplanted schoolgirl dreams.
Then, two years ago, while rummaging in a second-hand bookshop, my eye was caught by a book whose cover showed a team of horses racing wildly through a snowstorm, a light timber sledge bucking behind them and wolves at their heels. Here was my lost book, reprinted and with the added bonus of a preface by that other intrepid traveller, Eric Newby. Immediately I was under the spell of that remarkable woman again.
Kate Marsden was born in 1859. Little is known of her early life except that, aged 19, she served as a nurse in the Russo-Turkish War. There she first came across lepers and was told, to her horror, that they were shunned and despised in many places: ‘There is no cure – the best remedy is to shoot them – poison them – anything to put them out of their misery.’ She vowed to devote her life to caring for lepers and when, a decade later, she heard of a herb said to alleviate the symptoms of leprosy, she determined to travel to the only place it could be found – Yakutsk, in the depths of Siberia.
The account of her extraordinary expedition opens in Moscow in 1890, where Kate and a female friend (whom she has somehow persuaded to accompany her) arrive in icy mid-winter. She hopes to raise interest and funds for the 5,000-mile trek to Yakutsk, but she faces setbacks from the be
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