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History General

Prisoners of the North

by (author) Pierre Berton

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
May 2005
General, Polar Regions, Adventurers & Explorers
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2005
    List Price

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Canada’s master storyteller returns to the North to chronicle the extraordinary stories of five inspiring and controversial characters.

Canada’s master storyteller returns to the North to bring history to life. Prisoners of the North tells the extraordinary stories of five inspiring and controversial characters whose adventures in Canada’s frozen wilderness are no less fascinating today than they were a hundred years ago.

We meet Joseph Boyle, the self-made millionaire gold prospector from Woodstock, Ontario, who went off to the Great War with the word “Yukon” inscribed on his shoulder straps, and solid-gold maple-leaf lapel badges. There he survived several scrapes with rogue Bolsheviks, earned the admiration of Trotsky, saved Romania from the advancing Germans, and entered into a passionate affair with its queen.

We meet Vilhjalmur Steffansson, who knew every corner of the Canadian North better than any explorer. His claim to have discovered a tribe of “Blond Eskimos” brought him world-wide attention and landed him in controversy that would dog him the rest of his life.

There is John Hornby, the eccentric public-school Englishman so enthralled with the Barren Grounds where he lived that he finally starved to death there with the two young men who had joined his adventures.

Berton gives us a riveting account of the contradictory life of Robert Service — a world-famous poet whose self-effacement was completely at odds with his public persona.

And we meet the extraordinary Lady Jane Franklin, who belied every last stereotype about Victorian women with her immense determination, energy, and sense of adventure. She travelled more widely than even her famous explorer husband, Sir John. And her indefatigable efforts to find him after his disappearance were legendary.

A Yukoner himself, Berton weaves these tales of courage, fortitude, and reckless lust for adventure with a love for Canada’s harsh north. With his sharp eye for detail and faultless ear for a good story, Pierre Berton shows once again why he is Canada’s favourite historian.

About the author

Pierre Berton, well-known and well-loved Canadian author, journalist, and media personality, hailed from Whitehorse, Yukon. During his career, he wrote fifty books for adults and twenty-two for children, popularizing Canadian history and culture and reflecting on his life and times. With more than thirty literary awards and a dozen honorary degrees to his credit, Berton was also a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Pierre Berton's profile page

Excerpt: Prisoners of the North (by (author) Pierre Berton)


In the Yukon, where I spent my childhood and much of my teens, the old-timers had a phrase for those who had been held captive by the North. “He’s missed too many boats,” they’d say. When the sternwheeler Casca puffed out into the grey river on her last voyage of the season toward the world we called the Outside, the dock would be crammed with veterans waving goodbye — men and women who had given their hearts and their souls to the North and had no intention of leaving.

Dawson City in those days was a unique community, a cosmopolitan village where everybody knew everybody else, full of adventurous spirits who had come from every corner of the globe to profit from the great stampede of 1898. In my boyhood, the gold rush was history, but they were still here, this handful of survivors from the gaudy days.

They did not talk much about adventures that would seem prodigious to us today; it was old stuff to them. They had clawed their way up the passes, hammered together anything that would float, defied the rivers and the rapids, and notched the logs for their own cabins when at last they reached their goal. They had made it! When others flagged, or failed, or fled, they had hung on, secure in themselves, and isolated from the outside world — prisoners of their environment but free from the cacophony, and the glare, and the breathless bustle of the settled world. They had had their fill of all that. I once asked George Fraser, an old-timer who lived on Dominion Creek forty miles from Dawson, why he hadn’t paid a visit to town in fifteen years. “Too many bright lights!” he told me. That says it all.

The North has its own sounds, but in my day when the temperature dropped and the roar of the river was stilled and the whine of the big gold dredges had ceased, the world of my youth was silent. Nothing seemed to move. Smoke rose from the chimneys in stately columns that did not waver. It was as if the entire community had been captured in a motion picture freeze frame. For many, I think, that was one of the attractions.

They came from everywhere, these old-timers we called sourdoughs. Men like Mr. Kawakami, a Dawson fixture who sold us fireworks and incense along with Japanese parasols and kimonos from his little shop on Third Avenue. A block away in her corner store, a distinguished, grey-haired Frenchwoman, Mme Émilie Tremblay, displayed the latest Paris fashions for the town’s socialites as well as for the town’s demimonde. No stranger just off the boat would have realized that in 1894, two years before gold was discovered on Bonanza and before Dawson existed, she and her husband had climbed the Chilkoot Pass and made their way into the empty Yukon.

One of her customers was the Chicago-born doyen of Dawson society, Martha Louise Black, who left her husband and climbed the Chilkoot pregnant, bore her baby in a one-room log cabin, and went on to become the second woman in Canada to win a seat in Parliament.

At St. Paul’s Pro-cathedral on the Dawson waterfront I would watch the morning procession each Sunday, often led by the bishop, Isaac O. Stringer, who had been obliged to boil and consume his sealskin boots to ward off starvation on the Rat River trail, thus providing Charlie Chaplin with a memorable scene for his film The Gold Rush. At the other end of the social scale was a rough-hewn Slav, Jan Welzl, who had come to Dawson from Prague by way of the Arctic, so he claimed, with the help of the Inuit. He spent his time trying to develop a perpetual motion machine in an abandoned warehouse while bemoaning the fact that he had sold the rights to his memoirs, Thirty Years in the Golden North, for one hundred dollars before it became a Book-of-the-Month Club best-seller.

I went to school with the second and third generations of these captive Northerners. One classmate, Chester Henderson, was the grandson of the famous Robert Henderson, officially acknowledged as the co-discoverer of the Klondike’s gold. Another was the son of Percy de Wolfe, known as the Iron Man of the North because of the hazards he encountered with his dog team on the mail run between Dawson and Eagle, Alaska. Helen Van Bibber, who beat me to stand first in our class, was the mixed-blood offspring of a marriage between a native Indian and a male descendant of Daniel Boone.

My father was one of these Northern hostages. He could have had a teaching job at Queen’s but he chose the Yukon, refusing to quit even when the so-called Stikine Trail became a heaving swamp. He opted for the Chilkoot, built a raft, and made his way to the goldfields, intending to stay for two years. He found no gold but stayed for forty, and his only regret, I think, was when the Depression forced him to leave.

I was thinking of people like Mme Tremblay, Martha Black, Chester Henderson, and Helen Van Bibber when in a book for would-be authors I made a facetious suggestion: get yourself born in an interesting environment. It was my great 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. The North has been a rich literary source for me — far more valuable than the nuggets Chester’s grandfather dug out of his Klondike claim.

In this work I have again gone back to my Northern heritage. It is my fiftieth book, and I have discovered, somewhat to my astonishment, that no fewer than twenty-seven have included some reference to the North or the Klondike — sometimes no more than a few paragraphs, sometimes a chapter or more, and on several occasions an entire book.

Time and again my heritage has intruded into my literary output, occasionally without my realizing its presence. Like my father before me and like the five remarkable characters that follow, I, too, in my own way am a prisoner of the North.

Editorial Reviews

"With a sleight of hand style that never distracts from his subjects, Berton vividly resurrects misfits and dynamos, ferreting out the qualities that make them extraordinary. He makes history resonant and relevant."
Toronto Star

"At historical storytelling, Berton is a master. . . . Berton gives us a vivid picture of how the land can get under people’s skin and become a potent driving force in their lives. . . . [He] manages to produce an exciting series of personal vignettes."
The Globe and Mail

"Berton’s works of non-fiction are so readable that they might be mistaken for novels. Berton is a stickler for the truth and for detail. This book proves once again that he is our country’s finest historian."
Edmonton Journal

"Berton makes history read like fiction: fast-paced, colourful and full of both significance and suspense. It is a rare art and one that has served him and his readers well."
The London Free Press (ON)

"Nobody writes popular history the way Pierre Berton does. He is the undisputed Canadian king of the genre."
Calgary Herald

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