Famed author revisits gold rush

Author Charlotte Gray gave Yukoners a sneak peek of her upcoming book at a Tuesday night talk at the Whitehorse Public Library.

Author Charlotte Gray gave Yukoners a sneak peek of her upcoming book at a Tuesday night talk at the Whitehorse Public Library.

The book will focus upon five figures who profited from the 1896-1899 Klondike Gold Rush, Gray told the library’s small crowd.

As Gray listed them off, the figures seemed like a prime cast for a 1970s disaster movie — a writer, priest, prospector, entrepreneur and journalist.

The journalist, Flora Shaw, was the colonial correspondent for England’s The Times, and was sent to Dawson at the height of the gold rush.

The writer is Jack London, a man that Gray is convinced heard the bulk of his legendary Klondike literary material “at the bar.”

Exuding an intense politeness and an extreme fascination with Canadian history, Gray told the crowd about her writing origins and about her most recent publication.

Currently the writer-in-residence at Dawson City’s Berton House Writers’ Retreat, she is in the Yukon doing preliminary research for the book.

Gray, the author of four national bestsellers on Canadian history, was awarded the Order of Canada in 2007.

By following the lives of the five gold-rush figures, Gray also hopes to explore “how everybody coped” with the explosive growth of Dawson City from a First Nation camp into a city of 40,000.

“Believe me, it must have smelled horrible,” she said of the gold-rush town.

Gray described sifting eagerly through mountains of late 19th-century historical records.

“Many (historical memoirs) are written by much older men, and they’re looking back and remembering … being part of this extraordinary, crazy, romantic adventure in which they nearly got killed,” she said.

“Nothing in their lives had been quite as exciting ever since.”

After moving to Canada from England in 1979, Gray quickly became enamoured of Canada’s rich multiculturalism.

She has often said that her non-Canadian origins allowed her to see Canada from a fresh perspective.

The same seems to hold true up here.

“I had no idea of the impact of such wonderful long days and the excitement of the ice going out on the Yukon … you can really feel winter’s grip loosening,” she said.

“In Dawson, nobody ever says, ‘What do you do?’ which is what they say in Ottawa. They say, ‘What’s your story?’”

In the lead-up to all her books, Gray described how she becomes completely absorbed with the material.

“Research is the easy part; writing gets a bit harder,” she said.

The book will represent a new direction for the famed author.

Gray is probably best known for her historical biographies of prominent Canadian women such as Isabel King, mother of the prime minister Mackenzie King and E. Pauline Johnson, an aboriginal writer and performer.

“Frankly, there’s enough people writing about men,” she told Tuesday night’s crowd.

However, the typical “cradle-to-the-grave” format of historical biographies is losing interest, she said.

Through the advent of websites, many readers are no longer content with a strictly linear format. Rather, many historical books have taken to selecting a unifying theme or event, and then expanding upon different elements of that theme through subsequent chapters.

“Horizontal, rather than vertical history,” she said.

Gray also spoke about her most recent book Reluctant Genius, a comprehensive biography of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

The book focuses strongly on the relationship between Bell and his wife Mabel, who was deaf.

“There’s only one group of people for whom (the telephone) doesn’t work: the deaf,” said Gray. “So Mabel was never able to use her husband’s greatest invention.”

The ‘reluctant’ part of the title refers to the fact that while Bell was a prolific inventor, he only ever patented his inventions as a result of the “nagging” of Mabel and her patent lawyer father.

Gray will be speaking on June 2 at the Dawson City community library.