I have just finished Pierre Berton's book "Klondike," and I've actually had -- yes -- some epiphanies!
Once you pass the age of 25 epiphanies become more and more rare. Eventually you know enough about the world that very few "connections" remain to be made in your mind. Sure, you can still LEARN new things, but rarely do you get those "aha!" moments when pieces of the world puzzle suddenly fit together.
I guess I'm lucky because I learned very little history when I was in school, so the historical timeline is still full of these little puzzles that need to be resolved. I've pretty much filled in the geopolitical gaps from 1920 on, but the turn of the century has remained a mystery.
Thankfully, Pierre Berton's wonderful sense of scope and organization has brought me the perfect overview of that period, and explained to me some questions that I didn't realize were vexing until I really thought about them: why did so many people rush off to the Klondike, even though the chances of staking a gold claim were next to impossible? How did so many of them become rich anyway? Why did those people notoriously just "throw their gold around" like it was worth nothing? And why was it so HARD to get to the Yukon, anyway?
There is no single answer for any of those questions, which is why the period has never seemed real to me; it was like a cartoon where people just did crazy things for no reason I could possibly relate to. But Berton's "Klondike" spends so much time answering all of those questions from every possible angle that...well, I had epiphanies. Lots of them. It's almost INDECENT, to suffer so many revelations in one's own armchair.*
Regarding the last question -- why was it so hard to get there -- I suffer an inability to judge the impossibility of physical tasks, and without actually undertaking the task myself I'm bound to be deluded for life. Last year's books about the Arctic impressed on me the horrible ordeal of walking on a glacier, Anton Money's "This Was the North" gave me a good sense of what solitary survival up north was really like...and now Pierre Berton has taught me about muskeg, swamps, mosquitos, and the impossibility of getting horses through such places.
Here's a simple equation: no horses, no supplies. No supplies, sickness. Sickness, slow movement. Slow movement through the sub-Arctic, forced to "winter in" repeatedly, in which case only the Indians were able to keep you from total starvation. Demoralization, disorientation, you finally make it to Dawson City only to discover that everybody's up and left.
I'm so thrilled with my revelations that I plan to follow up this book with three others. The first, "Good Time Girls of the Alaskan Gold Rush" by Lael Morgan is one I've read before. It elaborates on the histories of the dance-hall girls and prostitutes, who were very odd characters indeed. Berton covers this topic as well, but in a somewhat scattered way. Plus Morgan's book is beautifully illustrated, showing not just the women themselves but also their houses, streets, and men.
Then I'm moving on to another one I read but couldn't contextualize: "American Vaudeville" by Douglas Gilbert. It covers 1880-1930 and I hope will give me a sense of what entertainment was REALLY like during the period.
Finally, to solidify my grasp of the Yukon, I'll come full-circle with "I Married the Klondike." Written by Laura Beatrice Burton -- Pierre's mother -- it looks to be the sort of pioneer story that I love to read.
* I admit that I still don't really understand WHY gold is so precious. How did that all come about anyway?