For all that Dawson City is celebrated in lore and in history for the Klondike Gold Rush, I venture to say that the place would not have defied the fate of most mining boom towns for as long as it has without the assistance of the printed word.
This week, I’m just going to skim briefly over some of the fellows that have helped to keep Dawson alive in spite of everything that might have befallen the place since 1898. In later columns I will focus on specific individuals, but this time I’ll skim over the subject like a flat stone on a smooth lake. After all, I’m only supposed to write 500 words (and used 166 to get that far).
Dawson has a subdivision of country residential lots up on the Dome, in an area I like to call Literary Heights, because the streets are all named after writers: Pierre Berton, Jack London, Robert Service and Dick North.
There’s another area, along 8th Avenue, associated with the same four fellows. I like to call that one Writers’ Block.
Jack London was the first our immortal scribes to reach the Yukon. In his bid to escape the grinding poverty in which he had grown up and gain financial independence he came north to find gold.
He was in the Klondike region less than a year and found very little yellow metal, but he left full of stories and they made him the best-known, wealthiest writer of his generation before ill health and mixture of drugs and alcohol took his life 17 years later.
He wrote about many things during his brief, incandescent career, but his two best known books and his very best short story feature the Klondike, and he returned to the place time and time again in his fiction and non-fiction.
Dawson’s Jack London Square is at the bend in 8th Avenue, and is the brainchild of another writer, Dick North, whose personal collection of memorabilia formed the core of the museum there. Dick has written several books as well, one of them about London.
Robert Service was in Canada for the Gold Rush years, but he didn’t arrive in Dawson until 1907, and had already written his two most famous poems in Whitehorse before he got there.
Thing is, the poems were about the Gold Rush days.
Service lived a longer and probably happier life than London and the images he created with his pen and typewriter probably have more to do with what people think of the Yukon than most of the history books.
Most of those history books would never have been written but for the challenge provided by Pierre Berton who spent half his childhood in Dawson and wrote about the place on and off for his entire career, even working it into a book on Canada’s military history.
You can quibble with his details and interpretation, of you like, but most of the history books that have been written on the subject since the 1960s would never have seen print without the spur he provided when he wrote Klondike (or Klondike Fever, as the American edition was called).
So there you have my introduction to Dawson writers. I’ll tackle each one individually before the Authors On Eighth writing event that takes place during Discovery Week in August.