The Trail of 98 Shows Another Side of Robert W. Service

Though best known for his 15 collections of verse (a term he preferred to poetry in reference to his own work) Robert Service also wrote novels. Between 1909 and 1927, he produced some genre material: adventure, mystery, science fiction and horror.

The first of these was The Trail of 98: a Northland Romance, written in his cabin on Eighth Avenue after the royalties from his first collection, Songs of a Sourdough, had enabled him to quit the security of his Bank of Commerce job, and refuse a promotion to run the branch in Whitehorse.

By that time he had been in the Yukon for five years, most of those in Whitehorse, where he wrote all of that first collection before he was transferred to Dawson in 1908.

Ballads of a Cheechako was already under way when he moved to the cabin, but he succumbed to the urge that would later tempt Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood: the urge to be a novelist.

According to Yukon raconteur Sam Holloway, it took Service five months to write his first novel and, with his name on the cover, it too was a success.

I don’t know if the book exists in its original form anywhere, but it’s been available as a pdf download from Project Gutenberg for years and this spring I noticed that Amazon was giving it away as a Kindle e-book, so I picked it up.  

There’s a lot of adventure in the story of the protagonist, Athol Meldrum, the bare outlines of whose early life owe something to Service’s, but you also have to wade through a lot of syrupy romance material along the way.

The story is told to us from the perspective of a prematurely aged and sickly man, living once again in physical comfort in his native Scotland, worn down by a hard life and many disappointments.

“The north wind is keening overhead, I minds me of the howl of the wolf-dog under the Arctic Stars. Sitting alone by the glow of the great peat fire I can hear it high up in the braeside firs. It is the voice, inexorably scornful, of the Great White Land.

“Oh, I hate it, I hate it! Why cannot a man be allowed to forget?”

After leaving Scotland, Meldrum knocked around California doing a range of menial jobs before getting caught up in the excitement of the Klondike Gold Rush. Where the book hums along nicely is in its account of the trip to the Yukon, the struggle against the land and the elements, and the physical challenges of mining. In terms of actual mining it appears that Meldrum and his mates did quite well for themselves.

The segments with Berna Winklestein, a young Jewish woman he meets on the way to Dawson, are mawkish at best. She’s plagued by an evil family trying to take advantage of her and her grandfather; then an evil miner after her body; and finally by Meldrum’s older brother Garry, who arrives on the scene and can’t abide their interracial union.

I’m not dismissing the book out of hand. After all, it was rescued from oblivion by a couple of organizations who felt it had cultural significance. As a cultural artifact, it was worth my time.

I don’t know if I’ll try the The Master of the Microbe, though.

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