Michael Gates | History Hunter
A new historical novel arrived on my doorstep recently, sent to me by the author’s publicist, who is headquartered in New Jersey. The title: No Time to Bury Them by Mark C. Eddy (Iguana Books, Toronto).
Mark Eddy was born in Newfoundland but has lived in metropolitan Toronto for the last 14 years. This is his second effort, the first being a work of historical non-fiction titled The Recent History of Terrorism in Canada, 1963-2013.
According to material sent out by the publicist, “For too long, Canadians have been hesitant to share and celebrate their history. In 2017, the nation marked its 150th birthday, and there is plenty to be proud of on this monumental occasion. With his new work of historical fiction, No Time To Bury Them, Canadian author and history buff Mark C. Eddy is hoping to engage his fellow Canadians in some of the more exciting and undiscovered aspects of Canada’s past.”
I am sorry to disappoint you, but you won’t get a history lesson from reading this book.
The blurb accompanying the book explains more: “The Yukon 1907: North America’s last untamed frontier. Dawson City has reached its turning point. The citizens, and the people they count on to protect them, now live under the brutal control of Eric Morgan, a violent gang leader. Morgan’s power has only grown since the days of the Klondike Gold Rush, and he now prepares for his greatest score yet.”
“Dawson City’s salvation rests with Inspector Richard Carol, who will lead a team of Mounties to liberate the city. But can he trust his own people? And with so many of his own battles to fight, can Richard trust himself?
“In No Time to Bury Them,” the blurb continues, “author Mark C. Eddy provides a gripping narrative depicting the brutal realities of this exceptional time in Canadian history.”
“Everybody knows about the American Wild West, but the Yukon in the days around the Gold Rush, was Canada’s Wild West. For Canadians, it was our time and place of untamed frontiers, lawlessness, bigger than life heroes, and brave women and men that faced challenges unseen in today’s Canada.”
It goes farther by claiming that the novel explores the bravery of the early Mounties, and creates thrilling scenes depicting historically accurate shoot-outs.
The book received Five-star rating from all three reviews when I checked Amazon Books. “You can’t put it down,” said one; “amazing job,” said another; “I loved it,” said the third. They all seemed ecstatic about the history as portrayed in the novel.
“This delves into its history and cements respect for the role they played in the development of the frontier areas of the country,” said one. “It was so informative of life back in the early 1900s,” reported another. Hogwash, I say.
I won’t quibble with the author’s skill as a writer; there are obviously some readers who really liked Eddy’s work.
The trouble with this novel is that it does not portray accurately the history of the Yukon. Eddy starts the narrative at a non-existent Fort MacCammon. “The biggest break from historical fact (apart from the characters) is Fort MacCammon and the Little Fox River,” he states in the author’s note at the end of the book.
But he is wrong there. I found little in this historical novel that reflected historical reality, and I am disappointed that any reader might think that they are getting a history lesson as well as a good read.
Eddy injects many of the clichés of the Wild West into this story: the untamed wilderness, the gunfights and ambushes, the violent gang-leader and the solitary figure who defeats the villain in the land of the midnight sun. With the great golden orb just breaking the horizon, this novel, similar to the famous movie western, could easily have been titled Low Noon.
Compared to the lawlessness of the Wild West and neighbouring Alaska, the Yukon was, if anything, over-policed. From the summer of 1898 to the summer of the following year, when the Gold Rush was at its peak, not one murder was committed in Dawson City. Chopping wood on Sunday was a serious offence – but murder?
Many of the Yukoners who watched the Klondike television mini-series, produced by Ridley Scott a few years ago, and scoffed at the patent mischaracterization of the North, will undoubtedly take offence with this book for the same reason.
The author conveys the impression — to me at least — that he has not visited the scene of this novel, or he would have known that those leaving the Klondike generally went up river, not down river. The Dawson of 1907, in this book, has blossomed into a “sprawling metropolis of thirty thousand,” when, in fact, the population, which had only ever reached half that much at its peak, was slowly declining. Dawson City was clearly a town on the wane a decade after the gold rush.
To be fair, he was correct that by 1907, the Mounted police were now “Royal,” and he acknowledges the role of “special constables,” but doesn’t tip the scales toward authenticity, in my view.
I had the same difficulty with the novel The Floor of Heaven, by Howard Blum, which was touted as a well-researched “true tale of the last frontier.” But it wasn’t, as I discovered while struggling to read it.
I turned to another novelization of the gold rush: Gold Camp Vampire, a “high-spirited fantasy adventure, written by award-winning fantasy writer Elizabeth Scarborough. The premise of a vampire visiting the Klondike is a novel concept — especially with those long hours of darkness.
Scarborough had been resident in Alaska for some time while developing the story, and spent time in Dawson City doing her research. In her acknowledgements, she cites a number of people who provided her with technical and historical assistance, but concludes with the disclaimer that “Any possible historical accuracy in this book is to the credit of the above-named people.… All errors, embellishments and downright lies are my own.” Her honesty on that point was refreshing!
It is not so much the misrepresentation of Northern history in Eddy’s book that I find offensive (after all, it is a work of fiction), but rather the false impression it creates of the Yukon’s history in the minds of the readers.
Writers like Robert Service, Jack London, Pierre Berton and Dick North did a great job of portraying our territory because they lived here.
It is time we look to our Northern authors to craft the narrative of our territory. After all, there is plenty of talent here to work with.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org