Cinnamon Mine strikes sweet spot

Ellen Davignon's book the Cinnamon Mine finally received the launch party it deserved, 23 years after its release. On Monday, the Old Fire Hall was filled with friends and well-wishers to celebrate the memoir's republication under Harbour Publishing's Lost Moose imprint.

Ellen Davignon’s book the Cinnamon Mine finally received the launch party it deserved, 23 years after its release.

On Monday, the Old Fire Hall was filled with friends and well-wishers to celebrate the memoir’s republication under Harbour Publishing’s Lost Moose imprint.

The book captures in vivid detail Davignon’s postwar childhood adventures growing up while her parents built a highway lodge at Johnson’s Crossing.

When it was initially published in 1988, it was only released in the territory. “We never launched it originally,” said Davignon, 73. “It just slipped into the market.”

After two runs, the book fell out of circulation several years ago.

Yet customers would continue to ask for it at Mac’s Fireweed Books. So Davignon’s daughter, Lise, who works at the bookstore, contacted Harbour.

They saw the book’s broader potential, as both a witty yarn and a piece of social history that captures in evocative language the disappearing world of the Alaska Highway lodge.

“I think it actually stands the test of time and that it’d be of interest to readers outside the Yukon,” said Laurel Parry, Yukon’s manager of arts.

“There’s a lot of universal in the book, about family and love and adventure, and just being open to possibilities. I think that’s inspiring for people who don’t have the benefit of the Yukon experience.”

This is largely thanks to Davignon’s “gift of the concrete,” as Parry calls it. “You can feel the dusty highway. You can taste the cinnamon buns… It actually transports people.”

Take this passage, which describes the family ritual of a Sunday pancake breakfast:

“In the centre of the table was a tall stack of hotcakes, golden brown and tender, each one the full size of the big frying pans.

“Beside them stood the tin box of butter, not to be smeared on, melting and disappearing into the vastness of the enormous cakes, but to be placed on the rim of the plate in a cool yellow lump to be picked up, bit by bit, on the edge of the fork and added to each individual bite, its smooth mellow saltiness providing a dot of contrast to the sweet egginess of the flapjack.

“And the whole mouthful was washed down with gulps of reconstituted Trumilk, mixed extra rich for the occasion with an additional cup of the powdery milk solids. Sometimes, when we got close to the bottom of the 25-pound tin container, the quality of the fluid got a little thin and blue, but this morning there was a creaminess to it that joyously bespoke a full new drum.”

The backstory of how Davignon’s parents met is an adventure in itself.

Her father, Robert Thorbjorn Porsild, was a hardy Dane who grew up off the western coast of Greenland. The Canadian government hired him to herd reindeer from Alaska to the eastern Mackenzie Valley.

He met Elly Rothe-Hansen during a trip to Copenhagen. After a short courtship, she was bound for Inuvik.

“She packed her linens and china and a couple of enormous spiepulse (a hard, spicy sausage), chose several sensible dark dresses and a suit of woollen underwear, added a fetching nightgown or two, kissed her family goodbye and set sail.”

No matter whether they lived in a wooden shack, a wall tent or an abandoned military building, Davignon’s mother ensured the quarters were cozy. Danes have a word for this: hygglige.

Parry sees this as an admirable quality we could all learn from.

“It’s not expensive or lavish. It’s putting a pot of flowers somewhere, or some fabric on the wall.

“I think it has to do with love and joy and the fact that life isn’t just about hard work and survival. There’s a certain aesthetic this family has, to this day, having a nice, gleaming floor and a piano and nicely braided hair, even if you’re only seen by your family.

“It’s quite inspiring to live your life with a sense of beauty and proportion, and I think that’s a nice philosophy for people tackling adventures, to remember where they’re from.”

To wit: when Davignon’s parents tried, as a young couple, their hand at prospecting for gold at Sixty Mile, they found the river had risen one day and flooded their cabin.

“They actually put the four-poster bed up on the roof of the cabin, over the peak, and they made that hygglige. They put a tarp over it while they waited out the flood.”

Davignon’s father was a hard worker, but he still had time to write his wife poetry while they were apart, as he built a two-storey lodge at Burwash Landing. Parry sees this as a counterpoint to the familiar story of someone visiting the Yukon “to make a killing and get the hell out.”

Davignon’s family came to run Johnson’s Crossing Lodge for 45 years. When it first opened, it was without electricity or plumbing.

“It was The Bush, all over again, with one major difference,” Davignon writes. “Now, we had to share these inconveniences and primitive facilities with a travelling public that were, for the most part, unused to guttering lamps and reconstituted powdered milk and a little house out back with an outdated Eaton’s catalogue for toilet tissue.”

Each weekend during the winter, it was her brother’s task to take a two-by-four into the outhouse to “knock down the high-rising brown stalagmite, thus ensuring the comfort and safety of our clientele.”

It was much more than a business. Davignon writes how, at the time, the Alaska Highway was the longest Main Street in the world.

“Mom loaned books and magazines. Dad removed fish hooks from thumbs, thawed frostbitten feet of motorists broken down at forty below and skillfully wrapped accident victims in gauze and bandages, doling out Aspirin and generous belts of overproof rum to the walking wounded.”

During cold evenings, Davignon’s mother would bring guests hot water bottles to their beds. “My mother literally tucked people in,” she said.

Her father was more taciturn, known for driving off “the occasional customer” who didn’t take their hat off while inside.

The book’s title refers to a spot of rusty sand along the riverbank where Davignon and her brother played, imagining they had struck a steam of cinnamon in the earth. She captures the whimsy of childhood well and with humour.

As a child, she hated oatmeal, which her mother served nearly every morning. Davignon would wait for her mother to leave the kitchen, then sneak over to a corner of the house where a knot in a floorboard left a hole.

In it, she’d carefully pour the gluey stuff down, then make like she’d eaten it.

Times have changed since Davignon was a child. The highway’s smoother. People drive further distances without stopping. Lodges have largely disappeared.

The Yukon’s less isolated. And a bit more aloof.

“I always said people in the Yukon are so friendly because there are so few of us,” said Davignon. “Now, that’s not quite the case.”

Not that you could tell at Monday’s book launch, where the hall was made as cozy as Davignon’s home. It smelled of cinnamon buns, and Danish embroidery decorated the tables.

“No matter where they were, they had hygglige,” Parry said of Davignon’s family. “Even the opening on Monday had hygglige.”

Contact John Thompson at