Some good summer history reading

Summer has well and truly arrived in the Yukon. It's time to get away from the grind, go fishing and camping, or curl up with a good book. If you want something with a little historical twist to it, here are a few books that you might enjoy.

Summer has well and truly arrived in the Yukon. It’s time to get away from the grind, go fishing and camping, or curl up with a good book. If you want something with a little historical twist to it, here are a few books that you might enjoy. Bear in mind that there are so many to choose from, it was hard for me to make a selection without regretting those that did not make the cut.

A couple of years ago, while attending a writers’ workshop in Alaska, I was both surprised and pleased to hear that Pierre Berton’s book Klondike (Klondike Fever in the U.S.) was considered to be a “masterpiece” by several American authors. This reaffirms my own experience with the book. I read it during my first visit to Dawson City back in the 1970s. When I finished it, it was 6 in the morning. I had read through the perpetual light of the Yukon night without noticing the passage of time! Equally good is his reflective river trip in Drifting Home. Several people have told me that they decided to visit the Yukon after reading that book.

If you are looking for a first-hand personal account of a trip to the Klondike, then my recommendation is that you select The Klondike Stampede (UBC Press reprint, 1994) by Tappan Adney. Adney was a journalist and an excellent observer.

There are also a number of good books about First Nations people that I would highly recommend. Catharine McClellan’s My Old People Say or Part of the Land, Part of the Water would be great choices, especially the latter if you are new to the subject; however, my personal favourite is Julie Cruikshank’s book Do Glaciers Listen? (UBC Press, 2005). This award-winning book reflects a lifetime of experience and wisdom about the First Nations people of the southwest Yukon.

A new cover on the bookstore shelf is I Was Born Under a Spruce Tree (Talus Publishing Group, 2012), by J.J. Van Bibber. This is the first of what I hope will be several first-person accounts by First Nation narrators. First Nation stories of three native elder women have also been gathered in Life Lived Like a Story (UBC Press), which is edited by Julie Cruikshank.

The Wreck of the A.J. Goddard, by Lindsey Thomas, Doug Davidge, and John Pollock is a nifty little booklet about the remarkable discovery of the wreck site of a boat that sank in Lake Laberge more than a hundred years ago. She sits on the bottom of the lake in remarkably intact condition, with her contents and cargo strewn about the lake bottom. You can obtain the pamphlet from the historic sites division of the Department of Tourism and Culture, or you can see it online at www.tc.gov.yk.ca/publications/The_Wreck_of_AJ_Goddard.pdf

David Neufeld and Frank Norris produced an excellent and well-illustrated narrative titled Chilkoot Trail: Heritage Route to the Klondike (Lost Moose Publishing). If you are planning to hike the Chilkoot Trail you will find this an informative reference with which to prepare yourself for your trip. Some of you, however, might find it too bulky to carry with you on your own trip of discovery along the trail.

For those who fancy fiction with a Yukon flavour, try Rutting Season (self published), by Roy Ness, who has travelled the areas he writes about. Somewhat more whimsical is David Thompson’s new novel, Haines Junction (Caitlin Press). Originally intended to be a collection of short stories, it coalesced into a colourful narrative of the travels of one individual to the Yukon and the characters he encountered along the way.

Youthful readers might find good reading in one of Keith Halliday’s children’s books, Yukon Secret Agent, Yukon River Ghost, and Game on Yukon. The last of the three is based on the true life events surrounding the Dawson City Nuggets hockey team and their challenge for the Stanley Cup in 1905.

Slightly older readers might find the reprint of Arthur Thompson’s Gold-Seeking on the Dalton Trail to be an interesting read. Based upon first-hand experience of the author during the gold rush, it follows the adventures of two young American boys who accompany their father and an uncle on a trip in 1898.

For my money though, the best history reading this summer will come from Skagway. Jeff Brady, the long time proprietor of the Skagway News, has brought out a book that is an entertaining and fascinating read. Skagway: City of the New Century (Lynn Canal Publishing), is a compilation of newspaper articles from the early newspapers, items gleaned from 35 years of the Skagway News, and short historical essays by a large selection of authors.

Contained in its 480 pages are more than 350 photographs documenting countless priceless moments in Skagway history. The well-chosen images are intriguing and engaging. Most were large and easy to view. From the lineup of gold rush newspaper boys depicted in the foreword, to a recent photo of former governor and Skagway resident, Sarah Palin, the images convey the human face of the community.

Nearly 160 articles collected into 15 chapters are organized more or less chronologically, starting with the Tlingit (the region’s first citizens), and the Moore family, the first newcomers. Subsequent chapters take us through the gold rush, the adventures of Soapy Smith, its most notorious scoundrel, the railway, women and newsmen. The Second World War and the community’s resurgence as a tourist town, which culminated in the centennial celebrations of the 1990s, are also addressed.

After every three or four chapters, Brady has inserted a timeline that chronicles dates in the history of this American coastal town. At the end of the book is a short bibliography of selected readings and a nine-page index for easy reference.

Do you want to know who really shot Soapy Smith? Would you like to learn more about the colourful people who have populated Skagway’s streets over the decades? This book is a good place to start. You could close your eyes and open the volume at practically any page and find another interesting topic worth reading. And that is exactly what I am going to do when it gets too hot to be out in the garden.

Skagway: City of the New Century is my history readers’ pick for the summer. It is available now in bookstores everywhere for $26.95

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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