The Man from the Creeks

by Robert Kroetsch

Published by Random House Canada

307 pages, 1998

 


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Clean Mad for the Muck Called Gold

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce

 

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;

The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;

Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew;

And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

-- From "The Shooting of Dan McGrew"

 

The first I ever heard of the Klondike gold rush or poet Robert Service or the mightily mythologized Dangerous Dan McGrew was from my maternal grandfather. A short but scrappy Canadian named Ewart Sprinkling, he'd lied about his age when he was 15 and been shipped to the European front lines during World War I, only to return home terribly saddened by the death of friends and determined from then on to find his excitement in books, instead. Among his favorites were those by Robert Service, the banker-turned-bard who -- despite the fact that he didn't reach Canada's Klondike region until 1904, well after the excitement had waned -- managed better than any other wordsmith to capture the rip-roarin' spirit of the gold rush days.

Even now, I can picture my grandfather reciting Service's "The Spell of the Yukon," "The Cremation of Sam McGee," and, of course, his tale of Dan McGrew and "the lady that's known as Lou." So moving were his recitations, that I always assumed he'd actually seen the mountains the Klondikers scaled, had mucked through the silt and mire of wealth-bearing streams, and had committed Service's rhymes to memory simply as the best way to retain a vivid sense of those places. Not until his funeral more than a decade ago did I learn that Ewart Sprinkling had never gotten within 800 miles of the gold fields.

Robert Kroetsch -- author of The Studhorse Man and The Puppeteer, winner of Canada's Governor General's Award, and a current resident of Victoria, British Columbia -- was evidently no less charmed than my grandfather had been by Service's robust, romanticized vision of the Klondike stampede. But Kroetsch wasn't inclined to let that vision stand. Rather, he spent years ruminating about and researching an elaboration on Service's story about Dan McGrew and the half-insane events that made up North America's last great frontier adventure.

The result is The Man from the Creeks. Although first published months ago (with a paperback version due on shelves in March 1999), like too many Canadian works, this one somehow didn't make it south of the border. So it was only recently that I, as an American, discovered and had the chance to read Kroetsch's latest novel. And what a stirring read it is. Kroetsch offers here a picaresque backgrounder to Service's famous poem, giving flesh and blood and motivations to the characters who later clash inevitably in the Malamute Saloon. Yet he has also used Service's violent, small-focus yarn as the kernel around which to grow a much larger and more complex study of the Klondike gold rush. Even people familiar with that event can glean from Kroetsch's novel a sharper understanding of the 100,000 men, women, and children who quit their mundane lives to go looking for the "easy money" said to be awaiting anyone who could reach the Klondike River tributaries near Dawson City, then the Yukon's boomtown capital.

Kroetsch's tale begins at the beginning -- in 1897, when the initial wave of novice gold seekers headed north to Alaska, most bound for one of two trails that led across the Coast Mountains to the headwaters of the Yukon River and thence to Klondike country. Aboard one of the steamships scurrying up the Inside Passage from Seattle, Washington, to Skagway, Alaska, we find a pair of stowaways: a 34-year-old ex-pawnshop employee who calls herself Lou and her precocious 14-year-old son, the peculiarly monikered Peek:

You might think I got my name from peeking. That wasn't quite the case. My mother was no great speller, even though she got through grade eight before her parents sent her out to work. She thought she was naming me after Mount Baker, the [Washington state] peak that glowed white and beautiful up there in the sky above her childhood. Obviously, she couldn't name me Mount Baker. Maybe she'd been hoping for a girl. Anyway, somewhere in the government office she wrote down my name as Peek, and that was that.

Not surprisingly, these two are caught, and their fellow passengers -- men who had paid dearly for room on the ship -- insist that mother and son be forced into the frigid waters, through which they might be able to reach a distant shore. At the last minute, however, they're saved by a barrel maker from Iowa, one Benjamin Redd, who offers to give the choleric crew a couple of kegs from his precious whiskey stock if they'll at least let him and the stowaways off the vessel in a rowboat. Thirstier for spirits than they are for blood, the crew relent. And Ben, Lou, and Peek -- along with the balance of Ben's whiskey kegs, which he intends to sell at top dollar so he can buy into his friend Dan McGrew's prospecting claim outside of Dawson -- make it to shore. With a bit more bartering, they hitch transportation from there to Skagway.

We witness all of this through the recollections of Peek, who has supposedly aged 100 years between the gold rush and his telling of this saga, but appears not to have misplaced a single detail. Peek recounts how, after a new acquaintance of theirs is gunned down in Skagway by cronies of Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, a real-life crime boss from the town's past, he and his adult companions depart immediately for the Chilkoot Trail with the deceased's supplies. Their journey north to Dawson invites author Kroetsch to re-create some of the Klondike stampede's most renowned settings -- from the Chilkoot's precipitous "Golden Stairs," where folks dared not step out of line lest they be unable to rejoin the tightly-packed procession of overburdened and out-of-shape miners; to the edge of Lake Bennett, where winter-bound miners waited impatiently for a thaw that would let them proceed down the Yukon River. He even provides a few sights that were less familiar, but also part of some Klondikers' memories, such as an episode of trailside justice (meted out against a rare man foolhardy enough to steal from his fellow prospectors) and an avalanche, from which Kroetsch manages to develop one of his more grimly comic scenes, as the snow-smothered dead are carted away:

The first packtrain started out with the first fifteen corpses, each in the posture it had assumed in the slide. Some of the corpses weren't covered at all. I mean with blankets or tarps. For that matter, some of them had been deprived of their parkas and boots. One was seated backwards, as if he was studying the horse's rear end. One man was seated upright wearing nothing but his winter underwear and an old pair of boots that no one wanted. One fellow looked as if he was flapping his arms and trying to fly. Another seemed to be examining his own private parts for crab lice, which weren't too hard to find in that camp.

Kroetsch does a splendid job of capturing the manic energy of this avaricious escapade -- the trailside towns rising almost overnight, packhorses driven to death by anxious gold seekers, fortunes made quickly and lost still faster. But like Larry McMurtry and other latter-day interpreters of the North American frontier experience, he is wont to plumb humor from hardship and draw life lessons from outrageous events. The gold rush as portrayed in these pages is not so disagreeable as many miners saw it, certainly not the provocation of despair that led some to commit suicide and others to turn right around at Dawson and head back home. The Man from the Creeks is more an appreciative wallow in the increasingly obscure lore surrounding Canada's foremost fool's errand, complete with whitewater rafting, cameos by historical figures, and colorful argonauts with even more colorful handles (like Whipsaw and Lemon Ed). It is simultaneously a coming-of-age tale about Peek, who in the course of searching for gold gains an education in greed... and loses his virginity to a fragrant, flouncing hardware store owner named Gussie Meadows.

Peek has an equally significant role here, though, in trying to "set the record straight" about the violent demise of Dan McGrew, who shows up -- looking more loathsome than lethal -- in the book's final third. "Why are poets such bluffers and prevaricators, such dotards in the face of the bald truth? Why do poets fail, ever, to look at the facts themselves?" Peek asks as he endeavors to correct some of the "facts" made famous by Robert Service. Why did the Malamute Saloon shoot-out really occur? Who fired first? And whatever became of "the lady that's known as Lou?" All these questions and more are answered by Kroetsch. To the author's credit, his embellishments to the original yarn are few. But they're significant and damnably poignant, shocking the reader who has been schooled in Service's more simplistic version of the Dawson tragedy.

Given the daring and drama that were integral to the Klondike stampede, it's a wonder that more writers haven't used this adventure as a background for their fiction. Service, of course, immortalized it in verse and later tried his hand at a gold rush novel, a not-very-memorable 1910 romance called The Trail of Ninety-Eight. Jack London, who left his native California to join the human tidal wave north in 1897, didn't even come close to striking it rich, but he did go on to write five books set around the Klondike diggings, including The Call of the Wild. The late James Michener put his own spin on history in Journey, an engrossing 1988 book that follows a group of English aristocrats in their harrowing pursuit of Yukon pelf. Beyond that, there are just a few western historicals (such as 1997's Klondike Fever, by Suzann Ledbetter) based on the legendary stampede.

Even were there more competition, The Man from the Creeks would still be a small triumph, filled with a blend of euphonious phraseology and period slang, its compelling plot deftly balanced between the comic and the cruel, and its protagonists lovingly wrought. Yet in the absence of many books of this sort, Robert Kroetsch's latest work shines as brightly as a nugget in a subarctic stream. I can pay it no higher compliment than to say that my grandfather would've loved it. | January 1999

 

J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the senior editor of January Magazine and the author of several books, including the PBS-TV tie-in America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997) and San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995). A Seattle resident, he's currently working on a collection of essays about that city's past.

Read an interview with author Robert Kroetsch.

Read January Magazine's earlier review of several Klondike gold rush histories.