The Yukon Kid rides again

For most of my adult life, as a writer always looking for new ideas or markets to sell stories, I've wondered why westerns were so popular and successful yet there was no such genre known as "northerns." 

For most of my adult life, as a writer always looking for new ideas or markets to sell stories, I’ve wondered why westerns were so popular and successful yet there was no such genre known as “northerns,” or so I thought.

I even vaguely recall sending off proposals and queries via snail mail to southern (Vancouver) and eastern (Toronto) publishers as a young man wondering why this was so. If Louis L’Amour could become a multi-millionaire writing boring tales about the Mild, Mild West, why couldn’t someone do the same writing yarns about the Wild, Wild North, specifically the Klondike and Alaska?

Well, guess what? Someone did.

On a recent tour through the alphabetical fictions at the Yukon Public Library, I found a small old book under “H” with a tattered orange cover and numerous repair jobs titled The Yukon Kid, by James B. Hendryx, which made me chuckle and wonder if The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy somehow survived that famous shootout in Bolivia and joined the Klondike Gold Rush with Jack London.

When I gently picked it up to peek inside, I was further amused to see pen and ink drawings including one of a gunfight on snowshoes, which Pierre Berton said was impossible, and another of a goldpanner wearing a six-gun squatting by a creek.

Further investigation revealed it was just one of many books authored by Hendryx, apparently the first, consisting of titles such as Raw Gold, Corporal Downey Takes the Trail, Blood on the Yukon Trail, Man of the North, Gold – and the Mounted, North, Frozen Inlet Post, Downey of the Mounted, Snowdrift, The Foot of the Rainbow, The Gold Girl and Connie Morgan in Alaska, a series which also followed Mr. Cornelius or possibly Miss Constance Morgan to cattle country, fur country and lumber camps where he/she joined the forest rangers and the Mounted before hitting the trail to the next adventure.

The Yukon Kid was copyrighted by Hendryx in 1933-34 and published in November 1943 by Triangle Books in New York, two dates which further inflamed my respect as I imagined a struggling writer starving during the Depression and thriving in the Second World War when money started to move again. 1933 could not have been a good year to be a freelance writer, particularly in the giant shadows cast by Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and many others of that gilded age called the Roaring 20s.

Having never heard of him, I googled his name expecting to find a lot of information about the popular Seattle rock ‘n’ roll guitarist from the 60s who died young at the age of 27. Instead, I found this:

“James B. Hendryx (1880-1963) was the author of more than 50 novels and anthologies, and wrote hundreds of stories. And Hendryx wrote what he knew, spending time in Alaska, Canada, and the Wyoming badlands. But he’s best known for his characters set around the outlaw community of Halfaday Creek in the Yukon. Set during the Gold Rush of the late 1890s, Hendryx penned over a hundred stories featuring these characters over the span of 25 years for magazines such as West, Dime Western, New Western, Argosy, and the primary home for the Halfaday Creek series, Short Stories.”

The Yukon Kid starts at the beginning with George Carmacks coming into the Antler Saloon in Fortymile with a wild story nobody believes about a new upriver discovery. The crusty old sourdoughs figure Carmacks is just working a scam with old Joe Ladue who recently staked a new townsite and is looking for suckers to buy lots. Carmacks dumps 13 ounces of gold on the bar which everybody laughs off as bait he got from Ladue to start a false stampede. But Tommy Haldane, the Yukon Kid, silently notices something the rest of them missed: This gold was different, it had a red tint to it he’d never seen before, so he quietly slipped out of town to check it out while the oldtimers were getting plastered and singing songs about the good old days in California in ‘49.

Thus begins the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896.

The Yukon Kid has to classify as historical fiction, which means many famous names interacting with fictional characters and liberal stretching of the true facts, but so what? That’s fiction.

The writing style is clear, except for the constant use of copious quantities of colloquial dialogue, much like Mark Twain, which I find distracting and hard to read but entertaining in a nostalgic way. People didn’t really talk that way in 1896, did they? Old newspapers don’t read dumb. Why, then, does old dialogue make the men and women who voraciously read those papers sound dumb? Mark Twain, one of the most eloquent and oft-quoted writers in history, made his childhood alter ego, Tom Sawyer, sound dumber than a bag of rocks.

Hendryx did the same with the Yukon Kid and all his friends, enemies and acquaintances, but his basic facts, notably geography, dates and historical figures, appear bang-on or close to it. L’Amour was famous for describing the physical west exactly as it was and Hendryx seems to have followed that pattern in presenting his views of the North, which he obviously researched well.

By today’s politically correct standards, the Yukon Kid is also racist, sexist, ageist and just about every other “ist” or “ism” out there, but that’s the way the world was in 1896 and 1933. It kills me when people try to paint Twain as a racist because of his frequent use of the “N” word, and Hendryx is also guilty of using the accepted standards of speech during his time in history. I had to google again to learn “Siwash” is a French derivative Chinook jargon word meaning “wild” or “savage,” which would get you a hate crime charge in 2015.

I’m fairly certain Hendryx never became famous based solely on the fact that I read a lot and never heard his name before, but I couldn’t help wondering if he got rich using “my” idea from the 1970s, roughly a decade after he died. Basically, what he did in his long career was exactly what I had in mind as a young man, and I can’t imagine anyone writing 50 books without at least staying a couple steps ahead of the hungry wolf.

In fact, I now feel a “like minds” bond with him since I thought it was such a great idea at the time, another of many which never drew a response from indifferent publishers. After he died in 1963, he faded into obscurity but the publisher for his library, Altus Press, brought his work back to life in July, 2013, and you can find it at: jamesbhendryx.com.

It’s not Louis L’Amour, but then the Klondike isn’t the OK Corral or Dodge City either. His books are northerns done western-style, a damn fine idea if I do say so myself, cowboy.

Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.

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