“A gripping and wholly original account of the epic human tragedy that was the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98.”
That is the promotional headline for the new book from Doubleday Books (McClelland and Stewart in Canada), titled Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike, by author Brian Castner.
There is praise for the book on the dust jacket. “Brian Castner tells the big American story of the last big American frontier,” says one reviewer. “A brilliant tale on a misunderstood time in American history; the best book ever written on the Alaskan gold rush,” gushed another. I won’t hold the American slant these comments give to this novel about a defining moment in Canadian history.
Finally, and more accurately, author Phil Klay states: “Novelistic in the best sense, with vivid characters and carefully reconstructed scenes of life among the prospectors, this book is an endlessly fascinating joy to read. “
Brian Castner, the dust jacket tells us, is the author of several books, including one about British explorer Alexander Mackenzie. He is a former Explosive Ordinance Disposal officer and veteran of the Iraq War. In a thoughtful podcast interview by Canadian historian Sean Graham, Castner admits that he’s not an academic historian, but the book is entirely based on real people and real experience.
The dialogue is derived from historical sources, and not fabricated, he says. If there is a quotation, he can cite the source. You can look up these passages in the 39 pages of end notes that precede the four-page bibliography at the end of the book. The book also includes 38 well-chosen, but often-used, photographs and a map covering the area from Juneau to Forty Mile.
Castner strives to be authentic. “No more pretty words about pretty places,” his editor warned him, and in that, he succeeds. The book follows events from before the gold rush, to its conclusion four years later. It is written from the perspective of several well documented participants of the Klondike stampede, including Tappan Adney, Jack London, Sam Steele, Belinda Mulroney and a dozen others. He wanted to include other gold rush characters, including “Diamond Tooth” Gertie Lovejoy, but there wasn’t enough documentary evidence to incorporate them into his narrative.
He said in the podcast interview that he could follow the exploits of people like Tappan Adney from day to day. Yet he failed to include Adney’s fascinating account of a First Nation hunting party, with whom he traveled into the distant reaches of the Klondike river the winter of 1898/99. I think this would have made a significant addition to the story, but suspect that it would not support his contention, which seems to be that the Klondike gold rush was characterized by death and misery.
This story, to me, is a narrative of misadventure, crime, murder, suicide, destruction. People died on desolate glaciers, smothered in avalanches, drowned on the lakes and rivers of the Yukon, perished in shipwrecks, and succumbed to disease. You name the form of demise, and there is probably an example of it somewhere in the text.
In his interview with Sean Graham, Castner states that 100,000 people started out for the Klondike, but only 30,000 made it. What happened to the others, he asks? Many died; he speculates that this number is in the tens of thousands.
Castner adds that he struggled to keep it in the language of the time. “Many characters in this book express a number of racial stereotypes,” he states at the beginning of the book, “and use a variety of epithets that many readers will find deeply offensive. I repeat them only as required, and in service of a historically accurate story.” This is a challenge that any writer of history faces when confronting the shifting social values expressed in current times. I laud his effort not to whitewash the history of the period.
I would like to say that the book lives up to the billing of a wholly original account, but in that regard, I think it fails. Like many authors who have come before him, Castner was heavily influenced by the structure Pierre Berton’s classic book on the Klondike gold rush, even to the extent of omitting, just as Berton did, almost all reference to the so-called Dalton Trail over the Chilkat Pass. In fact, at one point, Castner mistakenly refers to the reindeer relief expedition coming over the Chilkoot Pass, rather than the Chilkat.
I don’t want to seem too harsh in my criticism about Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike, and I do not want to quibble over the numerous historical inaccuracies I stumbled across while reading Stampede. After all, it is a novel. In fact, his research for this book is impressive when compared to similar attempts in books like Howard Blum’s “The Floor of Heaven,” which gets a failing grade. Worse yet is “No Time to Bury Them,” by Mark C. Eddy.
The author has absorbed much of the reality and context of the gold rush and renders them in a creditable fashion, but I would challenge his assertion that tens of thousands died on the way to the Klondike. Who was better qualified to tabulate the numbers of deaths on the Klondike trail than the North West Mounted Police? In his report for the year ending in November 1898, Inspector Z.T. Wood accounts for 83 deaths by drowning, shooting, freezing and avalanche, a far cry from the thousands purported by Castner. I think that critical examination of primary sources would provide an accurate and much lower figure number for stampede-related mortality.
The approach to telling the story through the narrative of key characters is not new, either, though it is an excellent device for telling his story. Take for instance the book Gold Diggers, by Charlotte Gray, who builds the story around the accounts of miner William Haskell, Jesuit Priest Father William Judge, businesswoman Belinda Mulroney, Mountie Sam Steele and budding author Jack London. Many of these same narrators are chosen for Stampede as well.
Nevertheless, the author has built his story upon a thorough foundation of historical material, and fleshes in the details in a compelling and readable way. I like, for example, early in the book, the way in which he painted a word-picture of Robert Henderson’s ordeal after having injured his leg while prospecting on the Indian River in 1895. Henderson’s calf was impaled on a broken tree limb, and he endured a slow and painful recovery in total isolation. Reading Castner’s account, I can feel Henderson’s pain.
Author Brian Castner has ably negotiated the slippery divide between fact and fiction and has created an enjoyable and readable historical novel. I found it to be a great read.
Michael Gates is the author of six books of Yukon history. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. Michael is the Yukon’s first Story Laureate. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org