Veteran Canadian author Berton portrays five intrepid folk enthralled by the call of the Arctic.
Himself a native son of the Yukon Territory, the author begins with Joe Boyle, a speculator at the time of the Gold Rush. While others staked small individual claims, Boyle got the timber and water rights to an eight-mile swathe of land; with these he was able to create a hydroelectric plant to power the monstrously huge dredges that made him, for a time, fabulously wealthy. In a stranger-than-fiction twist, he later swashbuckled across revolution-torn Russia and landed in Romania, where the “King of the Klondike” became an intimate of real royalty, that country’s Queen Marie. The second essay concerns Vilhjalmur Steffansson, “the last of the old-time Arctic explorers,” who made monumental northern peregrinations before tarnishing his reputation by claiming to have discovered “Blond Eskimos.” Then comes Lady Jane Franklin, who campaigned tirelessly to have her husband, Sir John Franklin, declared the discoverer of the Northwest Passage—daunted not in the least by lack of evidence for this claim. Next onstage is John Hornby, a fanatical loner who drifted about above the treeline on Canada’s inhospitable Barren Ground; his pathological refusal to plan ahead resulted in the deaths from starvation of himself, a companion, and his 17-year-old second cousin. Finally, Berton presents Robert Service, the Kiplingesque bard of the north who immortalized the rough life in “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Of his most famous work, Service said simply, “I loathe it. I was sick of it the moment I finished writing it.”
The links among these diverse personalities are barely discernible, but Breton’s enthusiasm is contagious: his heroes and lunatics make for fascinating reading.