Monday, February 04, 2008

"I Married the Klondike"

For the last few months I've been on a Klondike kick. I've read all about the social, political, and historical significance of the event. I've learned intimate details about all the gold rush archetypes: prostitutes, dance-hall girls, con men, Mounties, miners, and opportunistic businessmen. I've followed the history of Dawson from the first pan of gold to the start of the town's decline.

What more was there to learn? Obviously something, because Laura Beatrice Berton's autobiographical "I Married the Klondike" has been an eye-opener even to this jaded reader.

Berton, a school teacher, went alone to Dawson in 1907. The town was already in mid-decline but the unique social life of dances, teas, recitals, and endless gossip was still entrenched. Berton's book is a unique perspective of a 29-year-old woman's adventures in a dying mining town, including her marriage and the upbringing of her two children (one of whom, of course, was author and historian Pierre Berton).

The first half of the book consists of her detailed memories about the town's social stratification.
The social level began, of course, with the commissioner and his wife, and worked its way down through the judges and officers of the police, the high civil servants, the heads of the large companies, the bishops and church people, the bankers and bank clerks, lawyers and nurses until it stopped with us teachers, who clung to the charmed group by our finger-nails... The Mounted Police, noncoms and constables, were not admitted to Dawson's social set... Below the first social level came the merchants, who were known as "the downtown crowd", and below them the labourers, policemen and so on, who were, in turn, several steps above the dance-hall girls and the prostitutes of Klondike City and the half-breeds and Indians.
We also learn something about what it was like to be a single, unescorted woman living in the Yukon at the turn of the century. She describes riding an open sleigh from Whitehorse to Dawson, a week-long trip in the middle of winter, crammed in with thirteen other passengers, two of them amorous.
I sat in the rear seat, squeezed between a Swede on one side and a French-Canadian miner on the other... For five days I parried their advances, which followed much the same line.

"I mak' you present ermine skin, hey?" murmured the Quebecker, affectionately pressing my arm. "Two, t'ree, yes, enough for nice collar. How you like dat, hey?" Another squeeze.

Then from the other side--this time pressure against my leg and the Swedish voice: "In Dawson you go mit me to show, yah? Ve haf a good time, yah?" To all of which I smiled demurely and maintained a discreet silence.
Reading this in the midst of my furnace breakdown, I was particularly thankful that I wasn't currently Up North.
We could never quite keep the cold or frost out of the house. It seemed an animate thing, creeping insidiously under the crack of the door in a long white streak. Each nailhead in the strapping around the kitchen door was covered by a little coat of ice... A thick line of frost marked the lower edge of the door, and we could judge the temperature by gauging the distance this white line crept up along the door's edge from the floor to ceiling.
The environment kills many of her friends. They succumb to cold, incompetent medicine, animals, and drowning. Some go crazy, some just disappear. But most of them gradually trickled away as the city emptied, and eventually she left as well.

It's not all sad, though; far from it. She describes scenes of incredible bliss, spending summers floating around on the Yukon, picking an uninhabited island and living there for a month. She talks about the necessary acts of charity and kindness in a city where the smallest weakness could lead to death. She eloquently, breezily, and matter-of-factly describes the love that many people feel for small towns and the people in them, and the fact that Dawson was such an impossible place makes it all more fascinating.

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