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Jeffrey Simpson

Gray's account of the Klondike gold rush deserves to strike it rich Add to ...

Something has gone awry over the past decade and a half in Canadian non-fiction writing: Charlotte Gray has not won one of the country's leading book prizes. Perhaps this year, that oversight will be corrected, once judges get to read her latest book, Gold Diggers.

What a fascinating, rich account Ms. Gray's book presents of one of the most astonishing moments in Canadian history: the Klondike gold rush. It lasted only three years, from 1896 to 1899, but the lure (and sometimes the reality) of riches swelled a little settlement at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers into Dawson City, which, at its height in 1898, boasted 30,000 people. Almost as fast as the population rose, it collapsed. By 1902, Dawson had only 5,000 people.

The boom-and-bust cycle has happened throughout Canada, especially its northern reaches, but none was more spectacular than what hit Dawson City in those years. The tale of the gold rush has had its writers before, the late Pierre Berton being the most recent. It takes nothing away from Mr. Berton, who was born in the Yukon, to remark that Ms. Gray takes us even deeper into this amazing story by concentrating on six characters: a Jesuit priest, an adventurer panning for gold, a businesswoman who made a fortune, the famous Mountie Sam Steele, London Times journalist Flora Shaw and, most memorably, U.S. writer Jack London.

There was certainly heroism in the gold rush, because just getting to that faraway place required courageous efforts of endurance and planning. There was a sturdy fellowship and codes of conduct among the men who worked and suffered. But there was also foolishness, greed, debauchery, appalling treatment of Indians and hardship.

What hardship! To accompany Ms. Gray up the Chilkoot Pass, or to the creeks where miners searched for gold, or into their tents during the ferocity and darkness of the Yukon winter, or into the makeshift hospital where men suffered from scurvy, or down the streets of Dawson where anyone who slipped off the boardwalk might wind up hip-deep in mud, is to be taken by an accomplished writer into places none of us have ever been, or could scarcely imagine. It was a city without proper sanitation in a brutal climate where the insatiable demand for wood denuded the hillsides for miles around. Colourful, Dawson City certainly was, but dreary and difficult too.

Ms. Gray's previous books have borne this hallmark of a historian's scrupulous attention to the written record - she adores diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, yellowed books - blended with the context of character and place. She spent three months in Dawson City in 2008, soaking up material, especially the geography of the surroundings, so forbidding to the newly arrived during the gold rush. When she describes the sounds and power of pent-up ice finally breaking up on the Yukon River, she puts the reader right at the scene, because she was there too.

Tonnes of gold were shipped from the Klondike in those few years. The steamers that carried the gold had to be reinforced, so heavy was the cargo. A few people got very rich, mostly Americans; others did well, but left a lot of their money in the gambling and dancing halls of Dawson City; many more made little or nothing. Most of the money never stayed where it was mined, which is true of the industry throughout its history.

Some things never change. Miners reacted angrily when the Canadian government in faraway Ottawa imposed a royalty on the gold. Free-market newspapers in Dawson City, especially one run by an American, railed against the tax and claimed (falsely) that its imposition would cripple and ultimately kill the golden goose. When the miners moved on to other potential gold deposits discovered in Nome, Alaska, big companies moved in. Today, Yukon has only a few mines.

A little more than a century ago, the Canada-U.S. border didn't matter much. True, the Mounties insisted on strict rules for American fortune hunters heading for the Klondike, but thousands of them crossed the border. Dawson City's population was roughly divided between Canadians and Americans. That could never happen today.

But, then, most of what happened in Dawson City couldn't happen today, and readers can only be grateful to such a skilled writer and historian as Charlotte Gray to let us go to, feel, smell and wonder at such an astonishing place as Dawson City during the ephemeral gold rush of 1896-1899.

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