Saturday, December 27, 2014

Reader's Diary #1108- Laura Beatrice Berton: I Married the Klondike

I picked up Laura Beatrice Berton's I Married the Klondike a couple of summers ago when I had the chance to visit Dawson City, but am only now getting around to reading it.

Dawson City is a fascinating place and I'd go back in a heartbeat. We toured all over Yukon and Alaska and Dawson was my favourite by far. I am still amazed by the impact that the gold rush of 1898 had on the town. Just 10 years later, Laura Berton, then Laura Thompson, moved to the town to teach and it's almost shocking that even after that short interval she noticed people moving away and businesses shutting down. She talks about abandoned relics and machinery as if it was half a century later. It would seem that Dawson has been in perpetual decline, yet clearly that's not entirely accurate as there's still a town there to this day and there are still very obvious signs of that one year of glory.

Berton writes an engaging, easy to read, and enlightening story of life in Dawson City. A legacy of the Klondike gold rush seems to have been to create a division of classes, where people (like Berton) in the mid to upper crusts of society would eat imported foods, dress in fineries, and observe specific customs and rituals. If it seemed out of place in the frozen Canadian north, the discord was not lost on Berton and I felt her writing was at its most poignant when she drew attention to it:
As we danced the French minuet in our Paris gowns, men were struggling and sometimes dying in the sombre hills and valleys just beyond.
I quite appreciated her non-judgmental but astute reporting on such anecdotes and people, from most all walks of life. She seems rather unapologetic about taking part in the elite parties, but on the other hand, does not seem to judge harshly those (such as prostitutes) who were not in the same circles. Then, she also reveals in a later passage, that perhaps some re-tellings had been softened by time. She does, for instance, recall a time that she was unable to bring herself to thank a prostitute for oranges which she had given to Berton's sick son. However, she concludes that she "was less broad-minded in those days and says that she had "always bitterly regretted" it. Her few mentions of Aboriginal locals however show signs of the times and her attitude toward them seems rather dismissive and condescending, even with her supposed, new broadmindedness.

When Berton finally meets her husband, her life becomes more intertwined with the North and nature, and river trips up the Yukon River, away from the rituals and expectations, help paint a more complete picture of Yukon life. Of personal interest to me was the mention of several now ghost towns that I'd not heard of before. (I have a thing for ghost towns.)

Berton has a down-to-Earth, personable voice and natural story-telling ability. Fans of her son, Pierre Berton's work, might not only recognize some of the same characters from some of his Dawson City writing, but also the tone.

1 comment:

Teena in Toronto said...

I just put this on my to-be-read list. Thanks :)