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Pierre Berton—Canada's most celebrated historian—has earned more than thirty literary awards for his distinguished body of work, and in Prisoners of the North he offers the reader a multitude of magnificent exploits and dazzling personalities. Witness John Hornby risks death as if for amusement as he pursues his obsessive quest for adventure in the Barren Grounds. Watch the poet Robert Service earn the fortune he so craves—and the fame he so reviles. Judge the veracity of Vilhjalmur Stefansson's claim to discover a tribe of "Blond Eskimos"—and see the international controversy that ensues. Meet Joe Boyle, the wealthy gold prospector whose military valor in the Great War earned him the admiration of Trotsky—and the love of the Romanian queen. Join Lady Jane Franklin on her transcontinental journey in search of her lost husband, the famed explorer Sir John, who never traveled so widely, or so bravely, as his indefatigable wife. These are Pierre Berton's prisoners, whose compelling and unusual stories he weaves together with unparalleled skill. Evocative, thrilling, and deeply original, Prisoners of the North is as daring and uncommon as its exceptional title characters.
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Pierre Berton is the author of KLONDIKE FEVER, available from Carroll & Graf; NIAGARA; THE INVASION OF CANADA; FLAMES ACROSS THE BORDER; and forty-five other books. He has received three governor-general's awards for nonfiction, two National Newspaper Awards, the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, and the National History Society's inaugural Pierre Berton Award. He is a member of the Newsman's Hall of Fame and a Companion of the Order of Canada.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In the Yukon, where I spent my childhood and much of my teens, the old-timers had a phrase for those who had been held captive by the North. “He’s missed too many boats,” they’d say. When the sternwheeler Casca puffed out into the grey river on her last voyage of the season toward the world we called the Outside, the dock would be crammed with veterans waving goodbye — men and women who had given their hearts and their souls to the North and had no intention of leaving.
Dawson City in those days was a unique community, a cosmopolitan village where everybody knew everybody else, full of adventurous spirits who had come from every corner of the globe to profit from the great stampede of 1898. In my boyhood, the gold rush was history, but they were still here, this handful of survivors from the gaudy days.
They did not talk much about adventures that would seem prodigious to us today; it was old stuff to them. They had clawed their way up the passes, hammered together anything that would float, defied the rivers and the rapids, and notched the logs for their own cabins when at last they reached their goal. They had made it! When others flagged, or failed, or fled, they had hung on, secure in themselves, and isolated from the outside world — prisoners of their environment but free from the cacophony, and the glare, and the breathless bustle of the settled world. They had had their fill of all that. I once asked George Fraser, an old-timer who lived on Dominion Creek forty miles from Dawson, why he hadn’t paid a visit to town in fifteen years. “Too many bright lights!” he told me. That says it all.
The North has its own sounds, but in my day when the temperature dropped and the roar of the river was stilled and the whine of the big gold dredges had ceased, the world of my youth was silent. Nothing seemed to move. Smoke rose from the chimneys in stately columns that did not waver. It was as if the entire community had been captured in a motion picture freeze frame. For many, I think, that was one of the attractions.
They came from everywhere, these old-timers we called sourdoughs. Men like Mr. Kawakami, a Dawson fixture who sold us fireworks and incense along with Japanese parasols and kimonos from his little shop on Third Avenue. A block away in her corner store, a distinguished, grey-haired Frenchwoman, Mme Émilie Tremblay, displayed the latest Paris fashions for the town’s socialites as well as for the town’s demimonde. No stranger just off the boat would have realized that in 1894, two years before gold was discovered on Bonanza and before Dawson existed, she and her husband had climbed the Chilkoot Pass and made their way into the empty Yukon.
One of her customers was the Chicago-born doyen of Dawson society, Martha Louise Black, who left her husband and climbed the Chilkoot pregnant, bore her baby in a one-room log cabin, and went on to become the second woman in Canada to win a seat in Parliament.
At St. Paul’s Pro-cathedral on the Dawson waterfront I would watch the morning procession each Sunday, often led by the bishop, Isaac O. Stringer, who had been obliged to boil and consume his sealskin boots to ward off starvation on the Rat River trail, thus providing Charlie Chaplin with a memorable scene for his film The Gold Rush. At the other end of the social scale was a rough-hewn Slav, Jan Welzl, who had come to Dawson from Prague by way of the Arctic, so he claimed, with the help of the Inuit. He spent his time trying to develop a perpetual motion machine in an abandoned warehouse while bemoaning the fact that he had sold the rights to his memoirs, Thirty Years in the Golden North, for one hundred dollars before it became a Book-of-the-Month Club best-seller.
I went to school with the second and third generations of these captive Northerners. One classmate, Chester Henderson, was the grandson of the famous Robert Henderson, officially acknowledged as the co-discoverer of the Klondike’s gold. Another was the son of Percy de Wolfe, known as the Iron Man of the North because of the hazards he encountered with his dog team on the mail run between Dawson and Eagle, Alaska. Helen Van Bibber, who beat me to stand first in our class, was the mixed-blood offspring of a marriage between a native Indian and a male descendant of Daniel Boone.
My father was one of these Northern hostages. He could have had a teaching job at Queen’s but he chose the Yukon, refusing to quit even when the so-called Stikine Trail became a heaving swamp. He opted for the Chilkoot, built a raft, and made his way to the goldfields, intending to stay for two years. He found no gold but stayed for forty, and his only regret, I think, was when the Depression forced him to leave.
I was thinking of people like Mme Tremblay, Martha Black, Chester Henderson, and Helen Van Bibber when in a book for would-be authors I made a facetious suggestion: get yourself born in an interesting environment. It was my great good fortune, thanks to my father, the sourdough, and my mother, the journalist’s daughter, that I was born in what was then the most interesting community in Canada. The North has been a rich literary source for me — far more valuable than the nuggets Chester’s grandfather dug out of his Klondike claim.
In this work I have again gone back to my Northern heritage. It is my fiftieth book, and I have discovered, somewhat to my astonishment, that no fewer than twenty-seven have included some reference to the North or the Klondike — sometimes no more than a few paragraphs, sometimes a chapter or more, and on several occasions an entire book.
Time and again my heritage has intruded into my literary output, occasionally without my realizing its presence. Like my father before me and like the five remarkable characters that follow, I, too, in my own way am a prisoner of the North.
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