Murder. Mayhem. Gold … and the occasional Robert Service reference: Just another night at the ‘98, or the latest historical children’s novel by Yukon author Keith Halliday?
The third installment of the MacBride Museum Yukon Kid’s Series, Yukon River Ghost, once again transplants young readers into the unique, gripping and quirky era surrounding the Yukon gold rush.
Admittedly it’s an oft-flogged topic for the territory’s authors, but Halliday succeeds in giving a fresh perspective to the romance of that era.
Yukon River Ghost does not follow the standard Yukon stereotypes of dog sledders, stampeders or Mounties.
Rather, Halliday’s Klondike is seen through the eyes of Papillon Dutoit, a Yukon girl born to a French-Canadian mother and a river guide father who met on the Chilkoot.
The year is 1902, and the gold rush has officially ended, leaving the Yukon, once again, vast, quiet and nearly empty.
Papillon, her parents, her two brothers and her sister have come to summer in the recently vacated ghost town of Canyon City, located 10 kilometres north of Whitehorse.
Taking residence in an abandoned mine office, the kids help their father to begin cutting the stores of firewood by which they make their living.
However, all is not right with their idyllic Canyon City residency.
Nocturnal chain-clattering, white ravens and a reappearing pool of blood on the kitchen floor all remind Papillon that “ghost town” may not simply be a figure of speech.
Papillon has a childlike and inquisitive view of her Yukon home.
The very real trials and tribulations of the Yukon are all realms of the adult world, leaving Papillon free to explore the mysterious and fanciful trappings of the 1902 landscape.
A true work of historical fiction, Halliday skillfully dots the narrative with endless tidbits and accounts of Yukon frontier life.
Papillon and her siblings recount being taught to swordfight by commanding NWMP officer Sam Steele.
Papillon’s father brags about transporting a young Jack London up the Yukon River rapids.
And the children even find a poem in an old newspaper written by “some guy named Robert Service.”
In fact, thanks to the miracle of public domain, many of the characters in Yukon River Ghost are lifted directly from the Klondike ballads of the Bard of the North.
The children shy away from Red McGraw (The Duel), the henchman of sinister gold mine owner Mr. Slight.
Or they delight at meeting a colourful prospector named Hard Luck Henry (The Ballad of Hard Luck Henry) who drops by to warn the skeptical Dutoits of the ghost that haunts their Canyon City cabin.
Halliday takes pride in referencing his own family history. Although the Dutoits are fictional, they are closely based on the Cyrs, Halliday’s real-life Yukon ancestors.
Of course, it’s not all whimsical musings and charming domesticity.
The under-12 crowd of literary adrenaline junkies will still be well satisfied with an epic finale complete with a whitewater canoe chase, whizzing bullets and last-minute supernatural intervention.
Yukon River Ghost is a double-barreled feast of youth literature — on one hand, a gripping work of youth fiction, on the other, a well-researched Yukon cultural primer.
For those looking to teach their children the meaning of “cheechako,” the art of chopping firewood or northern history, Yukon River Ghost is a fitting tale, spun from the mind of a true Yukoner who knows his land best.
There will be book launch, featuring a barbecue and reading, at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History from 4 p.m. to 6:30 on Thursday.
Yukon River Ghost, by Keith Halliday, iUniverse, 112 pages, $13.50.