Friday, September 11, 2015

Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray

Anatomy of a boomtown
In Gold Diggers, published in 2010, author Charlotte Gray crafts a fascinating history of the Klondike Gold Rush. Covering the period from June 1896 to the Summer of ‘99, Gray charts the trajectory of gold fever in the Yukon Territory from its boom to its bust. I first became aware of this book through the television miniseries Klondike, a highly fictionalized adaptation produced for the Discovery Channel (which is very good, by the way; rent it if you haven’t seen it). I’m a huge fan of the author Jack London and his stories and essays about the Klondike. I was eager to learn the truth behind the fiction, and Gray’s account does not disappoint. The real history that she presents in Gold Diggers is every bit as exciting, fascinating, and incredible as London’s wildest literary interpretations.

Gray approaches the subject as a group biography, intertwining the lives of six diverse Gold rush participants: prospector Bill Haskell, author Jack London, entrepreneur Belinda Mulrooney, Jesuit priest Father William Judge, British journalist Flora Shaw, and Officer Sam Steele of the North-West Mounted Police. Although these six larger-than-life personages get the most attention, there are plenty of supporting characters that stand out as well, from government bureaucrats to newspaper editors to dance hall girls to “Klondike Kings” who struck it rich. In fact, it’s often difficult to remember who Gray’s six primary subjects are, because what really comes through is the story of a community. Gold Diggers is first and foremost the biography of a town: Dawson City. Gray relates the life of this remote mining outpost from its origins as a mud flat at the confluence of two rivers to its dubious distinction as the “Paris of the North” to its eventual mass abandonment in favor of the next big score.

At first I wasn’t very impressed by Gray’s approach. The initial chapters concentrate solely on Bill Haskell’s journey to the Klondike. Having read everything that London ever wrote, Haskell’s adventures sounded rather familiar, and Gray relies so heavily on Haskell’s memoir that I wondered why I shouldn’t just read that instead. However, once Haskell arrives in the Yukon and Gray begins to broaden her scope, I was hooked. I’ve read several biographies of London, but Gray opened my eyes to specific details about his Klondike experience that often get left out of the more general cradle-to-the-grave accounts. At times Gray takes some artistic license with her material, describing the thoughts in her subject’s heads or minute details of their daily activities that wouldn’t normally make it into the history books. She has a knack for combining historical facts with descriptive passages of literary quality. Where the book really succeeds is in its establishment of atmosphere. You truly get a sense of what it felt like to walk the muddy streets of Dawson, dance in its smoky saloons, hike a frozen river at 50 below, or hunker down in a drafty cabin for a long, lonely winter. You become so involved with the lives of Dawson’s inhabitants that after a while you feel like a citizen yourself. Gray vividly recreates the Klondike in all of its beauty, adventure, and filth.

The book ends with a “whatever happened to . . .” essay on the six main characters and an extensive bibliography of Gray’s sources. As satisfying as this book is, she has inspired me to want to learn more. Anyone interested in the Klondike Gold Rush will love Gold Diggers. Even if you’re only slightly intrigued by this episode of history, give this book a try and you too may be stricken with gold fever.
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