true tale not so true after all

A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush, proclaims the cover of the book The Floor of Heaven, written by Howard Blum and issued by Crown Publishers of New York.

A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush, proclaims the cover of the book The Floor of Heaven, written by Howard Blum and issued by Crown Publishers of New York.

Blum is an American author and journalist who received two Pulitzer Prize nominations while he worked for the New York Times, and has been contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine since 1994. There is no question about his writing credentials.

The Floor of Heaven, whose title may have been inspired by Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, (or a country and western song by Steve Wariner) is a high spirited story of the Wild West and the Klondike. It has all of the ingredients of a marvellous tale – Charlie Siringo, the cowboy-turned-detective as the good guy, and Soapy Smith the infamous villain of Creede, and Denver, Colorado, as well as Skagway, Alaska.

Throw in George Carmack, one of the discoverers of the Klondike, and his gold, and Blum has the ingredients for a good yarn in the tradition of pulp fiction.

The story traces the early days of Siringo’s career as a cowboy turned businessman. He crosses paths with many of the mythic characters from the American west – including Billy the Kid and Bat Masterson.

Siringo fulfills a blind man’s prophesy by becoming a detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency of Chicago. Operating from the Denver office of the agency, he is eventually sent to Alaska to solve the mystery of disappearing gold bullion at the Treadwell Mine at Juneau.

Siringo’s talent seems to be his ability to blend in with the seamy element of society, and his incredible patience that allows him to mix with the bad guys for weeks or months in order to win their confidence.

Soapy Smith also starts out as a cowboy, but quickly realizes that his talents lay in other areas. He is taken on by a circus where, under the tutelage of Clubfoot Hall, a shell-game huckster, he learns the confidence game, where all people are either his associates or his marks.

But Smith is ambitious and determined to run his own show. Eventually, he becomes the boss of the mining boom town of Creede, Colorado, then later moves to Denver. Smith becomes adept at enlisting an army of crooked confederates, often including corrupt public officials, newspapermen and businessmen to help him subvert justice and control the action.

Smith’s villainous deeds usually catch up with him, and when they do, he moves on. He eventually comes north during the Klondike Gold Rush and finds opportunity awaiting him in Skagway.

Carmack will be more familiar to readers of Yukon history. He lived in the North for a decade before the big gold rush, and had married into the family of Tagish leader Skookum Jim.

Carmack, Jim, and Jim’s nephew, Charley discover gold in the bottom of a small tributary of the Klondike River named Rabbit Creek, which is quickly renamed Bonanza. Carmack, Jim and Charley dig a fortune in gold from the gravels of their claims on Bonanza Creek.

Blum follows the paths of these three individuals until their paths intersect in a dramatic showdown in Skagway in June of 1898.

Blum is a skilled writer and weaves a tale as good as any dime novel ever penned about the Wild West. Using facts from historical sources and dialogue taken directly from the written words of these three men, he skilfully develops their personalities and the story line.

It is easy to visualize the plot and the characters, which may be one of the reasons that Chernin Entertainment and Fox 2000 are co-producing a movie based on Blum’s book.

Unfortunately, he uses a selection of cliched language throughout that might work as dialogue, but not as the storyline. I ain’t joshing when I say I found me a passel of trite narrative on the pages of this here book. I was a mite annoyed by the stereotyped word usage that cluttered near every page. Think I’ll mosey on now….

I was annoyed by the assertion that this is a true story. It would be better described as historical fiction, or even semi-fiction. “It is a history of the last years of the Old West and the Yukon gold rush,” writes Blum who cites an extensive reading list (there is a rather confusing, vague and occasionally inaccurate list of references at the end of the book) that includes several firsthand accounts.

Since I am unfamiliar with Charlie Siringo, and there are others better equipped to comment on Soapy, I reserve my criticism of Blum’s “true story” to his treatment of George Carmack.

Siringo encounters Carmack for the first time in chapter 14 when Carmack saves Siringo from losing his trapped hand in the machinery of the Treadwell Mine in Juneau. That encounter never took place because Carmack was turned down for work at the mine.

Blum’s ignorance of the Klondike and the reality of travel in the North during the gold rush is laughable. At the beginning of chapter 42, for example, Blum has Carmack leaving his camp on Bonanza Creek in the morning and crossing the Chilkoot in the afternoon, with a promise to his wife Kate to return in a day or two to depart for St. Michael, at the mouth of the Yukon River.

That isn’t true history, that’s bad geography!

At the end, Blum brings together Carmack (and his gold), Siringo, Soapy and Inspector Zachary Taylor Wood of the Northwest Mounted Police in a tense encounter on the Skagway waterfront, (complete with a flotilla of whooping Indians) in June of 1898. That an encounter occurred between Wood and Smith is well documented, but the rest of Blum’s account of events is pure fiction.

Others have turned gold rush history into gripping narrative without damaging the truth. Charlotte Grey, for example, who recently released her book Gold Diggers, does an excellent job of weaving the lives of six historical figures into a gripping narrative.

Others who participated in the gold rush turned their first-hand experiences into entertaining fictitious accounts of the era. Authors AR Thompson (Gold Seeking on the Dalton Trail) and RM Dickey (Gold Fever), for example, write with authority because they were actually there.

Unfortunately, Blum does seem to have the benefit of first-hand experience with the Yukon. “Yarns and tall tales are the stuff that has helped keep the Wild West and the Far North alive in our imagination,” says Blum. “In fact,” he goes on, “I hoped to pay tribute to this proudly inflated yet iconic heritage.”

Blum has gone beyond that. His history falls within the realm of fiction.

If you are looking for history, I can’t recommend this book, but if you will settle for an entertaining novel of the Wild West (and Far North), with all the usual ingredients, this book will probably satisfy.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available in stores throughout the territory.