When the Land Has a Character

Bestselling Canadian author Lawrence Hill pursues a lifelong interest in African diaspora narratives. As a part of the research for a book he’s writing about the contribution of African American soldiers to the construction of the Alaska Highway, Hill is travelling the Highway from northern B.C. through the Yukon. His first Yukon stop was in Watson Lake and he finishes in Whitehorse on May 24th.

The construction of the Alaska Highway is what some call the North’s historical equivalent to the Trans Canada Railway. “It’s a similar story,” says Hill.

The initial construction of the Alaska Highway was completed between March and November in 1942 by American troops looking for easier transport between the American mainland and Alaska. At the time, the United States and Canada were worried about the threat of a Japanese invasion in the Northwest. “Alaska was the weakest link,” says Hill.

The soldiers’ stories strike a personal note for Hill. “My father and grandfather were both named Daniel Grafton Hill. Both were in the U.S. Army, my father Daniel G. Hill III was stationed with U.S. army bases in the United States in World War II, and Daniel Hill Jr. was in the trenches of France in World War I.”

Hill is glad to finally have the time on his hands to pursue this longtime interest. “It’s the kind of story that speaks to me,” says Hill. “I’ve been reading about it for about five years, but I didn’t have the chance to start writing because of my other projects… Now I’m free to go at it.”

It’s not his first time in the Yukon and Hill says that he has an affinity for the North. “The North itself has to be a character,” Hill says. “It’s possible to write a story about Toronto without experiencing the weather, but in the Yukon the land, weather and climate are going to affect the protagonist. You need to think about the place as a character.”

He says that the quality of one’s experience in the North is affected by the weather in a unique way and sees it as imperative that, while researching and writing the book, he immerse himself in the conditions that these soldiers lived in. To whatever extent possible.

Hill is driving in the rain on his way to a meeting somewhere in Northern B.C. as we speak.

“It’s a very demanding landscape,” he says over the hands free phone. “I feel like I should experience a time when the bugs are really bad,” Hill says jokingly.

Hill says that the soldiers called the mosquitoes “dive bombers” because they would dive down at you.

“I’d like to experience that. For a day.”

Hill’s journey is a prelude to his upcoming 2018 residency in Dawson City, where he will continue his research from a northerly location during the colder months.

“The soldiers had to build this highway and (the Canol) pipeline in the winter. Since they knew all seasons, I want to have a sense of them in all seasons.”

Hill will be in Dawson from Jan. 1 to March 31, 2018 and I don’t doubt that he’ll enjoy the weather.

Hill also takes a keen interest in the cultural issues surrounding the Highway’s construction.

“Building the highway revolutionized the lives of the people living next to it. Indigenous people’s lives were especially altered. I’m very interested in these social and cultural issues.”

Asked if he thinks that the the history of the Second World War in Northern Canada is an understudied subject, Hill says that he’s here to popularize a part of history that isn’t well known enough. In this case the contribution of African Americans to an important part of our history.

A little known fact is that the soldiers working on the Highway were largely African American.

“The soldiers were racially segregated with inferior living conditions (compared) to whites,” says Hill.

Over the nine month initial construction period these soldiers – 5,000 or so of them black – toiled under harsh conditions in the Canadian wilderness of Northern B.C. and the Yukon across to Alaska. They were also instrumental in building the now defunct Canol oil pipeline, which ran from Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories, through the Yukon, to Alaska during the Second World War. The project included the construction of Canol Road from Johnson’s Crossing in the Yukon to the Northwest Territories, linking it up to an oil refinery in Whitehorse.

Hill will be stopping in various locations along the Highway and he’s he’s open to research tips from the public on the topic of the Alaska Highway’s construction.

Having just passed through Watson Lake, Hill will be making stops at the Burwash Landing Library at 12 noon on May 17th, the Haines Junction Library at 7p.m. on May 18 and the Odd Fellows Hall in Dawson City at 7 p.m. on May 23rd.

He’ll be wrapping it up at 7:30 p.m. on the 24th at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse.

Hill will talk about his ongoing project and take research leads from local residents. He will also discuss his most recent novel, The Illegal, a fictional story about the life of an undocumented refugee. The events are all free and open to the public.

For more information or to attend one of Lawrence Hill’s talks you can visit the Yukon Public Libraries Facebook page or call them at (867) 667-5239.

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