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Bookends: The Man from the Creeks goes from Poetry to Prose December 29, 2013

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: The Man from the Creeks goes from Poetry to Prose

Man from the CreeksBy Dan Davidson

March 6, 2013

– 826 words –


The Man from the Creeks

By Robert Kroetsch

Vintage Canada

307 pages



“We were stowaways, my mother and I. We wanted to get to the Klondike. More exactly, we wanted to get rich on gold.”

There’s so much we don’t know from the opening words of Kroetsch’s 1998 novel. It won’t hurt the story at all, or spoil anything, to tell you that our narrator is named Peek, and while all of the story he’s telling us takes place before he hits the age of 17, it’s being told to us by a self-confessed geezer who claims to be 114 years old way back on page 305. I think maybe that helps, in a way, since it will stop you from wondering how young Peek ever managed to get that age-old perspective that is so evident through the book.

Of course Peek (supposed to have been named after the top of a mountain, but a victim of bad spelling) lives up to his name by being the observer of everyone’s’ business along with his own.

Caught out in the act of being stowaways, the pair are saved from simply being thrown off the Delta Queen by the intervention of Benjamin Redd, a cooper whose idea of striking in rich in the Klondike is to transport kegs of whiskey disguised as the proper supplies needed for this trip. He trades several of them in return for having Peek, his mother, and himself set off on an island instead of being forced to walk off the plank.

Peek’s mom takes offence to being called “lady” by some members of the crew and this happens.

“’Don’t lady me,’ my mother said. ‘The name is Lou.’

“Just like that. That was the name she gave herself …

“That’s what the poet called her, later, when he wrote his famous poem.”

So now you know what this book is about. And if that wasn’t enough, the partner that Ben was going to join in Dawson is named Dan McGrew, who we later find out is generally known as “Dangerous” Dan.

Note to would-be authors of historical fiction set in the Klondike: if you’re going to make most of it up, why not start with some fictional characters instead of altering the lives of real people?

(If you read my column two weeks ago, you know who I’m talking to.)

Yes, this is the story of THAT Man from the Creeks and how he ended up in a shoot-out with McGrew in the Malamute Saloon, the fabled story that Robert Service fixed up a bit for his famous poem, fudging a few of the details for the sake of rhyme and mystery.

At least, that’s how Peek tells it to us in a story that some other reviewers have likened to a head-on collision between The Catcher in the Rye and The Call of the Wild.

Most of the story is driven by the journey. Kroetsch takes us from that island to Skagway, up the Golden Stairs, through the avalanche that killed so many, and on to Lake Bennett, where the trio settle in for a long spell while a cooper (maker of casks and barrels) learns how to build a boat. While they are there Peek experiences an eccentric sexual awakening beneath the skirts of an entrepreneurial lady named Gussie Meadows, who makes her fortune setting up a hardware store originally based on the leavings of Stampeders who gave up while coming over the summit.

Their relationship is so strange that it rates a chapter in Northern Love: An Exploration of Canadian Masculinity, a reference I happened upon while trying to determine if Gussie was totally fictional or not. You can read a lot of it at Google books.ca.

Once in Dawson the trio is broken up somewhat as Peek and Ben head off to work on Dan’s claim, while Lou stays in town to manage Dan’s saloon – yes, THAT saloon. Ben actually does get Gold Fever and even after Peek, who can play piano, ends up being “the rag-time kid” in the poem, staying in town and working for McGrew, Ben stays out at the claim.

Long before any of that we know how this story has to end, but Kroetsch manages to build suspense in spite of how well the poem is embedded in our collective consciousness.

Kroetsch was a Governor General’s Award winning (The Studhorse Man) author who actually did spend a bit of time in parts of the North and wrote about it autobiographically in an essay called “Why I went up north and what I found when I got there” which I would like to read sometime. It seems that, like many who have made that journey and sat down to reflect on it later, he came away with a bit of gold.





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