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review: non-fiction

There are, of course, scores of books about particular aspects of the Klondike Gold Rush, but perhaps only three authors can be said to have written thoughtful and truly enlightening narratives of the whole gaudy affair.

Tappan Adney, the famed canoeist, joined the rush on behalf of Harper's Weekly, out-reporting all the more famous journalists and producing The Klondike Stampede in 1900, when the ashes of the event were still warm.

Fifty-one years later came The Big Pan-Out, which added an understanding of economics to the story. Strangely, it has never been reprinted, and its author, Kathryn Winslow, seemed to have published almost nothing else (but is remembered as the patron of American novelist Henry Miller).

And of course there is Pierre Berton's Klondike (1958). Charlotte Gray, who has steadily become Canada's most important and certainly most careful and most readable producer of popular narrative history, notes that her famed predecessor "reverberated with [...]exuberance and sweaty machismo."

She, herself, does not, thank God.

In Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike, Gray sets out to revivify "the experience of a few characters in this large historical drama [and]to jigsaw together real stories to illuminate, over a century later, life in Dawson City" when it was booming with a deafening report. All but one of the handful of individuals she has chosen are already quite familiar, but they will never appear quite the same again once the readers have seen how she has made use of them.

Rev. William Judge, S.J., the so-called Saint of Dawson, was "a strange character - ascetic, deeply religious, guileless, but not naive. Those who met him recognized the quality of the man." He had no interest whatever in gold and, being in his late 40s, "was twice the age of most men there," such as Jack London, 21. London spent a year in the Yukon soaking up material for future short stories but left with a mere in $4.50 in gold and only one tooth in his young head, having lost the others to scurvy. Then there is the heroic yet vaguely Gilbert-and-Sullivan-ish character of Samuel Steele of the North-West Mounted Police, a well-meaning martinet not completely untouched by the rampant corruption that Gray unravels so well.

Gray is one of those rare authors who writes with equally sympathetic understanding of both men and women, free of judgmental assumptions or home-team boosterism. As a result, Steele comes across as the other half of his fellow imperialist tub-thumper Flora Shaw, special correspondent of The Times of London. A female colleague described Shaw as being "as clever as they make them, capable of any immense amount of work, as hard as nails and talking like a Times leader all the time." When supping with a group of Mounties and three Tlingit prisoners soon to be hanged, Shaw "behaved as graciously as if she was joining her friend the Duchess of Devonshire for dinner." (Gray goes on to mention that Shaw was active in the anti-women's-suffrage movement, a fact that could use some elaboration.)

The two Dawsonites who seem closest to Gray's heart are Belinda Mulrooney and Bill Haskell. The former lived until 1967, nine years longer than even Robert W. Service, the last and least of Gray's picks. She was a working-class Irishwoman who "could handle any amount of deprivation as long as she was making money." And she made a huge pile of it, as a hotelier and deal-maker, only to fall prey to a professional con man posing as a French count. As for Haskell, he was one of the Yukon veterans who, on hearing of the big strike on the Klondike River, lit out from the community of Fortymile, the proto-Dawson some distance downstream, near the Alaska border. He was a working stiff and one of what Gray calls the "obsessive, reckless individuals" drawn to such commotions. Soon after leaving Dawson, heartbroken by the death of his mining buddy and business partner, he published a vivid but now obscure memoir and then disappeared completely from the historical record.

A deep researcher and skilled explainer, Gray is also shrewd, calm and confident in the way she creates her book's complex architecture. She is likewise an engaging stylist. Describing one of the catastrophic fires to which Dawson, a place made of canvas and green lumber, was prone, she writes: "People rushed out of the dance halls and bars as the roar of the flames competed with the fiddles and laughter."

And she keeps her subtext subtle. Like Berton, she compares charmingly chaotic Dawson, held in check by cops and soldiers, with wide-open Skagway on the U.S. side, ruled by crooks and murderers. But she allows readers to discover for themselves the important underlying paradox. It is this: Exotic colonies, though authoritarian by nature, are also often the freest of places, as they're so remote from the seats of centralized power. Hannah Arendt, the great political philosopher, once suggested that the best form of government is the temporary kind that pops up organically immediately after the revolution and dies as soon as a new constitution gets written. For one noisy moment in 1898, Dawson must have been such a spot.

George Fetherling's latest novel is Walt Whitman's Secret.