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Berton House writer snared by Yukon

In cowboy boots, she stepped from her plane into the snowy and remote land that gave birth to Og.Then she slipped and nearly fell flat on her face.

In cowboy boots, she stepped from her plane into the snowy and remote land that gave birth to Og.

Then she slipped and nearly fell flat on her face.

That was in April and in the intervening months, Raincoast Books’ young-adult fiction writer Julie Burtinshaw shacked up in Pierre Berton’s childhood home with little more company than the famous writer’s books.

Working daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the first month, Burtinshaw ransacked her first draft of her fifth book, rewriting characters and heavily “editing” the work.

“Not only did the edit go really well, but I added 20,000 words that were all good words and were unexpected,” she said.

Some of the unexpected words came in the form of vulgarity, which, along with the book’s subject matter, may end up shocking the parents of her intended audience.

“The book I just finished is about a boy who self-mutilates — who is a cutter,” says Burtinshaw.

“There’s an actual culture around cutting and there’s music that sort of not necessarily supports cutting, but that talks about cutting, that really explores it.”

The music plays an important part in the life of a 17-year-old boy in Vancouver’s substance-riddled youth scene.

Burtinshaw cites industrial-rock bands Tool and Nine Inch Nails as prominent influences in cutting-culture, which often includes the world of drugs, drinking and swearing.

Over the past year, Burtinshaw tested the material on teen audiences and found most really excited about her story — either because they were cutters or because they know other kids who are.

“Some kids have actually shown me where they cut on their arms,” she says.

Parents and teachers are, for the most part, not aware of cutting culture, though teachers and librarians have expressed great delight at the prospect of such an edgy book joining their collections, she says.

“It isn’t the typical book. It has a hopeful, though not happy, ending. I try to be realistic.”

In an attempt to be realistic, Burtinshaw will read from her finished, though not finalized, novel when she appears in Whitehorse on Thursday.

She was hoping to read from her most recent published novel, The Freedom of Jenny, but she isn’t counting on getting it back anytime soon, having lent it out to someone in Dawson during her stay.

“You know what it’s like here, people start disappearing out into the bush.”

It’s a change for Burtinshaw, who would have otherwise spent the early summer part-time web editing and looking after a 17- year-old — who undoubtedly insists he doesn’t need looking after — in serene Dunbar, Vancouver’s older family enclave.

She was, however, intrigued with the prospect of going North “and frightened too,” to trade walks with raccoons in Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Park for drives along the Dempster Highway alongside irritated grizzlies.

Berton House, where she has been living and working since April, has been a temporary retreat for Canadian writers since 1996.

That’s when Pierre Berton and the Yukon Arts Council teamed up with the Canada Council for the Arts, the Klondike Visitors’ Association and the Dawson City Libraries Association to form the Berton House Writers’ Retreat Society.

The three dozen writers who have called Berton House home have been brought to Dawson and housed at no cost, just across the street from Robert Service’s one-time cabin and just up the street from Jack London’s.

The Canada Council for the Arts, which covers travel to and from Dawson and living expenses, only asks that any current writer-in-residence entertain the director for an hour, should he stop in for tea. (He did this summer.)

In return, the professional writers work on a project, not necessarily of a northern theme, and do some local outreach that includes donating copies of their previous works to various northern libraries, meeting with the public and hosting workshops.

Berton also initiated the house’s library with signed books and others out of his own northern-themed collection.

It was through this library that Burtinshaw first got to really know her host beyond the one book of his she won as a prize in Grade 5.

“When I was a kid, I was a huge, huge fan of the Secret World of Og and when people said, ‘Pierre Berton,’ to me, that’s who it was,” she says.

Lying in bed, in Berton’s childhood home and reading his book on the Klondike one bright evening, Burtinshaw was touched.

“It suddenly struck me, what an honour it is to be here in his house, with his signed copy, reading his book,” she recalls.

Berton lived in the home until the age of 12, sleeping some summer nights out on the porch.

In the dining room his mother “pecked out a novel,” which he took by bicycle over to the Dawson News to be serialized, he once wrote.

A copy of I Married the Klondike now sits in the retreat’s library.

Robert Service called it “a saga of the High North.”

Burtinshaw calls it “an amazing story,” one that fits in snugly with what she’s come to expect of Dawson.

“It’s a big part of Dawson City, the arts and writing and culture,” she says.

Though one might expect a northern-based writer to write about, well, the North, Burtinshaw wasn’t ready to do so.

“I didn’t feel comfortable writing anything about the Yukon because I felt like such an outsider and there’s so much to know here,” she says.

After three months of visiting museums, tramping on Crocus Bluffs, running into bears and moose and gliding among old graves, she began learning the stories that form Dawson lore.

Burtinshaw now hopes to write a young-adult novel that links Dawson to Vancouver, about the sinking of the Princess Sophia steamship.

In 1918, 346 passengers and crew perished when the steamer, leaving Skagway for Vancouver, was pushed off course and onto  Vanderbilt Reef by a storm.

For two days, the nearest lighthouse keeper tried unsuccessfully to reach the stranded ship on his own boat.

The seas were too rough for lifeboats to make it to shore. On the third night, the steamer was pushed by winds and waves off the reef. Its bottom scraped clean, the steamer sank immediately.

Many of the passengers were from Dawson, and 66 of the dead were grouped together in Vancouver’s old Mountain View cemetery.

The bell from the Princess Sophia hangs in Vancouver’s maritime museum.

Before landing in Vancouver, Burtinshaw will take a train detour to Skagway and glean more detail of the port for the Princess Sophia story.

Burtinshaw used the last weeks of her Klondike stay to make the most of the historical records and resources in the Dawson Museum and cemeteries, but it sounds like she isn’t nearly done.

“I absolutely will be back,” she says.

Burtinshaw will read from her new manuscript (working title: Being Bryan) at the Whitehorse Public Library, Thursday at 7:30 p.m.