Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reader's Diary #744- Charlotte Gray: Gold Diggers

At, Marian Botsford Fraser remarks to Charlotte Gray that "the story of the Klondike gold rush is very familiar to a certain demographic in Canada." To which Gray responds, with a laugh, "You mean what have I done that Pierre Berton hasn't?" While her response is much braver than the passive non-question she was thrown, her explanation that follows doesn't really convince me that Gold Diggers really is necessary.

Berton's book, she argues (and I assume she means Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, his most popular of the more than 5 titles he'd written specifically on the topic) focuses on masses of people, whereas she focuses her energies on 6 individuals in particular. Berton, she adds, didn't take the women as seriously either, suggesting that to him they were all hookers. The problem with this is that of Gray's 6 focal characters, only 2 of them are female. The problem with that is that one isn't particularly interesting (Flora Shaw) while the other (Belinda Mulrooney, easily the most fascinating character in the book) is also a focus of Berton's book. The latter, as Gray even details in her book, Berton tracked down in Washington in order to interview and there's also no way he could have called her a hooker. Plus, it's not as if Gray doesn't acknowledge the prostitutes-- it's hard not to when their presence in Dawson during the gold rush would be impossible to ignore. Besides all that, Frances Backhouse already wrote a book called Women of the Klondike, now more than 15 years old, and with a foreword by none other than Pierre Berton.

But going back to Marian Botsford Fraser's non-question, I musn't belong to that demographic which already knows everything there is to know about the Klondike gold rush. I haven't read any of Berton's Klondike books (though some other Dawson characters are profiled in Prisoners of the North, which I read earlier this year) or Backhouse's book. So, the question of whether or not Canada needs another Klondike book is moot to me as I enjoyed Gray's book and learned a great deal.

Most of the Gold Diggers characters are fascinating as was Dawson in those few short gold rush years. Many places in Canada, at some point in their histories, can relate to an influx of immigrants with nothing to lose and desperate to succeed or those simply looking for adventure and to prove that they can do something, be part of something. But few places can compete with the condensed way it all went down in Dawson. Dawson sprang into existence, some died while others got ludicrously rich, and the population ballooned from 400 to 30,000; all within just a couple of years.

And Gray tells it well. Her cast of 6 are introduced one by one, then continue being revisited and the drama of the gold rush is revealed through them. They were both manipulators and observers of history. I found it particularly interesting how young most of the stampeders were. When I hear prospector I used to think of grisly old men in wide brimmed hats, shaggy beards to their navel, and a lone tooth they'd nickname Chomper. The wide brimmed hats were legit (to keep the sun away), the shaggy beards were common (they kept away mosquitoes), and lots of the men lost teeth due to scurvy (including Jack London), but most tended to be young. Early 20s young. In hindsight, considering the hardships they had to endure, it makes sense that these were the men with the stamina to survive. But those dance hall girls, card games, and saloons make an even wilder impression when you consider the youthful energy and freedom these gold diggers had. Lax laws (especially before Sam Steele showed up), one woman for every ten men (sometimes literally, considering most were prostitutes), whiskey, and gold as plentiful as it was-- if it weren't for the frostbite and starvation, it could have been like spring break. No wonder it still hold so much curiousity. Surprising the town didn't simply self-destruct.

Recently I read Ray Price's history of Yellowknife. I complained that while some of the characters were interesting, Price delved too deeply into insignificant details: who staked what claim, how large it was, and so on. Gray was able to balance her book more effectively, keeping it compelling. Was the book necessary? Probably not. I think now I'd like a history of Whitehorse. It's the capital after all, the largest Canadian city north of 60 with more than 20 times more people than Dawson City. Yet, historians always seem to focus on Dawson. Maybe Gray should have written about Whitehorse. I like her writing well enough-- if she writes one, I'd read it.

(I should also comment on the typos I found in my copy. They weren't as prevalent as some self-published books I've read and most didn't hinder my understanding of the book, but I was still surprised by the amount found in a book with a publishing company as large as HarperCollins. As it has not yet gone to paperback (scheduled for October of this year), this time around I did something I've never done before: I emailed the publishers with some of the typos. I'm curious if they'll be fixed in the next printing. I'm also curious that none were mentioned in any of the other reviews I'd read. They seemed pretty obvious to me and are certainly a valid complaint.)


Kailana said...

I really enjoy Charlotte Gray's books. I have a couple unread ones on my TBR pile, but I will probably get to this one at some point. It's too bad about all the typos!

Buried In Print said...

I've been eyeing this one as well; I wouldn't mind either if the subject has been covered before (betting that Charlotte Gray's work has a following that the earlier book by Frances Backhouse -- rightly or wrongly -- would not). Funny about the typos...I feel strangely personally invested in them with it's a Canadian book, but I don't think I've ever considered emailing an international publisher with similar concerns! ;)