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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Prisoners of the North

Reviewed: October 15, 2004
By: Pierre Berton
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
328 pages, $39.95

“It is my good fortune, thanks to my father, the sourdough, and my mother, the journalist's daughter, that I was born in what was then the most interesting community in Canada.”

So Pierre Berton writes in the foreword to his fiftieth book, a collection of five character studies he calls Prisoners of the North.

He's not talking about Whitehorse, where he was actually born. In a way, he's not exactly talking about Dawson City, either, though two of the five prisoners in the book put down some roots here, just like he did, and always seemed to remember the place, just as he has.

Looking back over fifty books, Berton writes, “I have discovered, somewhat to my astonishment, that no fewer than twenty-seven have included some reference to the North or the Klondike ...”

I will name drop a little here. I have known about this book for a couple of years now, though I was uncertain of the name until an envelope full of xeroxed, uncorrected page proofs arrived from Berton's publicist at Doubleday last summer.

Once I had hole punched the standard letter sized sheets (marked with the trim lines) and put them into a binder for reading, I was able to leaf through them and figure out just which part of the book he had needed to borrow my copy of Lewis Green's The Gold Hustlers to research. I had thought it might be a chapter about Treadold, but I might have known it would be Joe Boyle.

Boyle, the King of the Klondike and eventual protector of the Queen of Romania, is a natural bookend as one of a pair of stories which open and close this volume. At the other end, of course, is Robert Service, across from whose cabin on Eighth Avenue Berton spent his early years.

In between we find Vilhjalmur Stefannsson, who started out life as young Willy Stephenson, and went on to make more than just a name for himself.

He is followed by Lady Jane Franklin, in a chapter which enables Berton to visit another side of the story he related in such detail in The Arctic Grail. The tenacious Lady Jane was the making of her husband, who would probably have been content to have been a lesser man and to have lived longer.

The oddest duck of the lot is John Hornby, the peripatetic northern hermit who followed no man's customs save his own, and yet always carried a formal outfit in his kit in case he should need it. Hornby is, I think, the only one of the lot that Berton hasn't written a little something about in the past.

Boyle was featured in Klondike; both Franklin and Service were sketched in the collection called My Country: The Remarkable Past; Stefannsson got a nod in The Arctic Grail.

Berton hasn't just been rewriting himself though. While the personal anecdote which closes the section on Robert Service is like the one in his earlier essay, that little sketch was a mere 14 pages in length, and the account in the present book is nearly 70.

What he's interested in here is what made these men and the woman what they became, for all of them slipped into roles they created for themselves and lived those roles to the hilt. Boyle was the larger than life adventurer; Stefannsson the controversial but nonetheless impressive Arctic explorer; Franklin the explorer's widow who climbed mountains and sailed the world herself; Hornby the prototypical mad trapper who inspired others to die of starvation; and Service, the best selling poet of his time. Not one of them started out as they began. Not one of them had close associates who really knew them well. None of them were entirely honest in the pursuit of their own legends.

As Berton says, “They were all loners, impatient of authority, contemptuous of regulations, driven by a romantic wanderlust that set them apart from the run-of-the-mill existence on which they so often turned their backs.”

And what of Pierre Berton, whose best known creation is undoubtedly that tall man with the receding mane of white hair who has been successful in every sort of media and writing endeavor he ever attempted, and has come a long way from the somewhat soft Little Lord Fauntelroy lad with the Prince Valiant hairdo that you will find in his memoirs and even more in the unauthorized biography which will be appearing in a couple of years.

Well, I think it's quite natural that Berton would be interested in the stories of people who carved out their own niches in history.

In addition, Berton sees himself as another prisoner of the north. It has had a grip on him since he was born, and though he has lived most of his 84 years elsewhere, it has never let go of him.

And it seems he would not have had it any other way.

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