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Bookends: Tales from Along the Highways February 18, 2017

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Bookends: Tales from Along the Highways

By Dan Davidson

December 19, 2016

– 684 words –alaska-or-bust


Alaska or Bust & Other Stories

By Erma Odrach

Crimson Cloak Publishing

379 pages

$25.50 in hardcover

also available in paperback and e-book formats


It’s almost a truism that anyone with even a smattering of literary DNA in t

heir genes will probably end up writing about the Yukon if they’ve lived here for a while and then moved away. That’s why there are so many memoirs about the Gold Rush. That’s why Service and London and Berton all wrote about the place throughout their entire careers even when they were in other places, even, as in the case of the first two writers, when they never came back.

So we come to Erma Odrach, who is mining her memories of a three or four year residence in the north. She sent me this book some months back and we struck up a little bit of a correspondence as a result. She was here from 1979-82, living in Whitehorse and a few places along the Alaska Highway, travelling in the territory and in Alaska, living part of the time in a Squatter’s Row cabin, and ending her stay while holding down a job, fittingly enough, at Mac’s Fireweed.

There’s a generational angle as well, sine her daughter apparently lived in Dawson in the summer of 2015 (if have that right) and volunteered at the Dawson City Music Festival.

The thing about Yukon memories, after 30 years or so, is they suffer a little bit of factual drift. Just how much it’s never easy to say, but all those people who met Jack Lon
on here after he was gone, and all those who travelled over the Chilkoot with Robert Service in 1898 are proof of the type of drift I mean.

So there may be things in the 25 stories that make up this collection that don’t sound quite right, but most of them feel pretty good as far as I can tell. Oh, you can’t drive from Skagway to Haines without doubling back through Haines Junction, (see “Chuck Goes to Haines, Alaska, on the Fourth of July”) but that’s a small problem, a
nd one that won’t exist in subsequent printings of the book, or in the email editions.

The stories range all over the areas that can be reached by the major highways in the territory and the state. Some of them overlap a bit in terms of characters, or refer to events in other unconnected stories. There’s an amusing trilogy about the Three French Guys, and “The Runaways” (about kids in a foster home) has a sort of sequel in “Bush Baby Gets Married”. Quite a few of the stories are quite humorous, but there are also a number that deal with abuse, creeping insanity and hard times.

I’ve been reading this book on and off since October. The stories were good for when I just had a short time to sit and I found them quite satisfactory.



trainCreated by Mike Vago
Illustrated Matt Rockefeller


14 pages



This is an interesting concept book. It is constructed so that the attached small train can be driven around the landscape o each double page spread (seacoast, d
esert, prairie, mountains, small town, large city, and station). The edge of each segment allows you to drive the train around the edge and into the next landscape until you reach the spot at the back of the book that allows you to shut it again. Or, you can drive the train through the tunnel that take you back to the front of the book to do it all again

Should the train slip out of the grooves that are its track, it’s easy to put it back and carry on.

The book seems sturdy enough, It’s hardcover with a cloth backing inside the spine holding the double page signatures in place. There are directions for proper use on the back cover. Even so, it looks like something that you would to keep an eye on while young reader were playing with/reading it.






Bookends: Desperate People Hide out in the Yukon January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Desperate People Hide out in the Yukon

By Dan Davidson

August 29, 2016

city-of-thr-lost– 767 words –


City of the Lost

By Kelly Armstrong

Random House of Canada




Every so often a writer will reach back into Charles Dickens’ bag of tricks and issue a novel in serial format. Stephen King did it with The Green Mile back in 1996, bringing it out in six thin paperbacks that were eventually republished in collected form about a year later.

It’s become easier to do this now that there’s a market for e-books. Canada’s Kelly Armstrong is best known for her novels featuring werewolves and witches, books with strong female characters. Even though there’s no supernatural element to this book, the latter description remains true.

Our narrator is Casey Duncan, a veteran detective with the special victims unit in a city that remains unnamed. Casey has a deep secret. 12 years earlier she was attacked while out walking with her boyfriend. He fled and she was both raped and badly injured. When she comes to, several weeks later, she seeks out Blaine, wanting an explanation for why he had abandoned her. She questions him at gunpoint, and at some point in the argument she kills him.

She gets away with it, but does penance by joining the police force.

During the ensuing twelve years she has become the protector of a young woman named Diana, who seems to have terminally bad judgement when it comes to men. Di is the only person who knows what Casey did, but Di has her own problems in the person of an abusive ex-husband who keeps coming back for more, and has nearly killed her at least once. Casey tried to scare him off, but it seems she only made him become more devious.

Recently Casey has been stepping out with a bartender named Kurt and one evening they are attacked and he is shot. The gunman gets away but his parting words tell her he was sent by Blaine’s father, a known gangster. Casey has been playing a weird sort of psychological Russian Roulette for some years, going to various therapists and confessing her murder to them, counting on the patient/doctor relationship to protect her. Apparently one of them finally talked.

That’s the set up for what follows. Di has learned of a place where people can go when they need to hide, and at this point they both need to. The interview to go to the City of the Lost doesn’t go well to begin with, but it emerges that this bush town, somewhere north of Dawson City, has need of a detective. It has a sheriff, Eric Dalton, but he’s no expert on murder, and there has been one. So despite his reservations about Casey, (he seems to know her secret) he agrees to take them both.

The town of Rockton is a full service bush community with an indeterminate number of residents. It is accessible only by air, from the Dawson airport. It is controlled by something called the Council, and the set-up is somewhat mysterious, but it is a hideaway for people who need to disappear, some for good reasons, some for bad.

The first murder, the one Casey was brought in to solve, was weird. There were body parts, and whole thing looks like it was done by an intelligent animal. Having read some of Armstrong’s other books that was sort of where I expected this to go, and subsequent murders have a touch of ritualism to them that increased this misleading impression.

The eventual solutions and motives are much more mundane than that, but there are more than enough twists and turns in the plot to keep up the interest and the suspense.

I picked up this series last year while travelling, mainly because the promotional material mentioned Dawson and the Yukon. There are a few scenes in the town itself, with a decent sense of the place without being too specific. The wilderness town of Rockton is a bit too manicured to be a really acceptable depiction of the Yukon wilderness, but then this story takes place in the summer, so Armstrong can get away with a lot.

In the end, it was a decent read. Some of the fans at Amazon are calling for a sequel, but, even though there are some loose ends in Casey’s life, I don’t really see where one would go. That said, Armstrong was signing books at Coles in Whitehorse on August 27, and her website says part of the trip was research for more books in this series



Bookends: A Pair of Pierres find danger in the bush January 17, 2017

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Bookends: A Pair of Pierres find danger in the bush

By Dan Davidson

March 22, 2016

– 964 words –


The Wail of the Wendigo

An Early Adventure of Pierre Trudeau

By Steve Pitt

Fireside Publishing House

227 pages



I should probably explain right off the top that the Leaders & Legacies series of young adult adventure books, of which this is the fifth volume, does not ask that you believe much of hat’s happening in any of the mysteries. The idea is to imagine what various of our Prime Ministers might have been like if they had been involved in Hardy Boys style adventures in their teen years. The series was created and is guided by Roderick Benns, who wrote the first two books.

So far there have been adventures featuring John Diefenbaker, John A. Macdonald, Paul Martin and Richard Bennett. Each of the books so far has featured a fairly realistic mystery and setting and has included all sorts of things that might be said to foreshadow what these lads would grow up to be.

The current book gets full marks for all sorts of clues to the future, but has moved into new territory with its inclusion of quite a few supernatural elements. It’s a bit of Hardy Boys meets Goosebumps.

It’s set in the year 1931, and while it begins with Pierre Trudeau and his father in Montreal, planning a trip to the Yukon to test out a gold claim, it doesn’t stay there long. Actually it begins firmly in Pierre’s head, where he is engrossed in reading a pulp fiction horror story in which one of Canada’s former Prime Ministers, transformed into a vampire after his death in England, is being pursued through the labyrinth of rooms in the Parliament Buildings. Pierre is on a paddle wheeler, heading for Dawson, and it’s towards the end of a the chapter before we flash back and find out how he ended up there, talking to a young deckhand named Art Fry.

Art Fry? Yes, the first of a number of other real life persons who make their way into this book. Art’s along for most of the ride from there on. Other real folk include Frank Berton, Wop May, Albert Johnson, Terohaute and, of course, the young Pierre Berton.

Along the way to Dawson, young Trudeau has a strange encounter with a boy that no one else can see, and receives the gift of a bear claw in exchange for a chocolate bar. This turns out to be very important later.

The pair of Pierres (a running gag in the book) do not take to each other at all in the beginning. Berton sees Trudeau (they end up using last names to avoid confusion) as a stuck-up city boy, and Trudeau sees Berton (bow tie and all) as an arrogant know-it-all who is forever taking notes on everything around him.

In a sort time the boys, their fathers and Art, are bundled into May’s plan and flown east to the Rat River district, where they set up camp near an abandoned (and strangely fortified) cabin and begin the process of testing the creeks for colours.

There’s something strange happening at night, weird sounds that have nothing to do with Trudeau’s overheated imagination. Later the boys will learn about the danger and why the cabin was so fortified.

In the meantime, they learn to hunt, courtesy of lessons from a native girl (because the term First Nations hadn’t been though of yet) named Henni. She and her parents have been living a traditional lifestyle in the woods ever since the authorities threatened to take her off to residential school.

She and her family know the secret behind the strange noises at night and are friends with the mysterious man named Albert Johnson, who claims to be the 141 year old survivor of one of the Franklin Expeditions. He and another man survived that disaster, but at a cost. Terohaute consumed the flesh of his companions, and fed it to some of the other stranded men, passing it off as game he had killed.

For this cannibalism, both he and Johnson were changed into Wendigos, driven to eat human flesh and shun the company of mankind. Franklin has been trying to cure himself of the curse, but Terohaute has embraced it.

Henni’s family and the boys come up with a plan to take away much of Terohaute’s power and send Albert, who is tired of his long life, in the next world.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you about that.

There’s a lot of what film fans would call Easter Eggs in this book. Trudeau says things like “Just watch me” and is presented with a red rose to wear in his lapel as a charm against danger. Berton takes notes on everything and is outwardly full of himself, while inwardly unsure, as befits a boy whose growth spurt came to him late in his youth.

They meet again four years after the events of this story, after Wop May has had a hand in tracking down the Mad Trapper, who was operating out of that cabin on Rat River and displayed unnatural endurance while he was fleeing from the RCMP in the winter. Guess who?

After they have caught up with each other’s lives, Berton asks Trudeau if he has ever considered a life in politics.

“Yeah, sure,” Trudeau replies with a laugh. “The chance of me becoming prime minister is about as good as you becoming a best selling author.”

Happily, Pitt has provided eight pages of actual facts about his dramatis personae, so that the readers can separate the fact from the fiction. The two Pierres certainly met during their lives, but not in Dawson in 1931.



Bookends: International intrigue comes to the Klondike October 12, 2015

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Bookends: International intrigue comes to the Klondike

By Dan DavidsonGold Web

January 14, 2015

– 776 words –


Gold Web

By Vicki Delany


322 pages


1898 was an exceptionally busy year in the Klondike. In fact, it was an exceptionally busy spring and summer, for that has been the time frame for all four of the Klondike Mystery series novels. While Dawson may have been free of any murders at all in real life, Fiona MacGillivray and her immediate circle of associates have had to deal with a dead dancer, an attempt on our heroine’s life and a kidnapping into the bush in search of a mythical motherlode.

This one begins with a bloody murder in the alley behind Fiona’s Savoy Saloon and Dance Hall.

“The last thing he saw in this world was world was my shocked face.”

Why did the murdered man breathe out her name with his next to last breath, and why did he use the last one to say “Culloden”? And in telling the NWMP all that she knew of the man’s last moments, why did she omit that last bit of information?

There are generally three narrative strands in these books. We get Fiona in the first person. Angus, her 12 year old son, gets the third person treatment, as does Corporal Richard Sterling, the man who may one day become her significant other. The interweaving of these points of view means that we very occasionally view the same scene from more than one perspective.

Of Fiona, we know that she was born to a servant family in Scotland, but got a first class education by virtue of being befriended by the local laird’s daughter, gaining a refined English accent in the process. At a young age tragedy befell her family and she was cast upon her own resources, living for a time with a group of gypsies, and leaving them when the potential for harm at the hands of one of the young men became too great.

This continuing development of her backstory comes to us courtesy of events in the present triggering memories of the past.

In this book’s flashback sequences we learn that she spent a number of years as a street beggar under the tutelage of a Fagin-like character who ran a kiddie crime family as well as a brothel. Good looks and refinement would eventually gain her entry to the homes of the well to do, where she was a successful thief, keeping a step ahead of discovery by moving on.

She moved on to Toronto where she and Angus (we have yet to learn of his origin) lived for a time before deciding to try out the Gold Rush in 1897. A short stay in Skagway convinced her that it was no place for her and Angus. Along the way north she formed a business partnership with Ray Walker, and together they founded the Savoy in Dawson.

There are a number of ongoing plot strands that began in the earlier volumes and weave their way through this book. Fiona has a continuing feud with one of the local madams on Paradise Alley, and that leads to an attempt on her life. The arrival of a lady photographer, Ellen Jennings, leads to Angus taking on a second summer job and appears to drive a wedge between Fiona and Sterling, who have been inching closer together during the months they have known each other.

As Sterling works to solve the murder mystery, other plots are swirling around the town. What is one to make of Count Nicky, the Russian, who seems intent of a hair brained scheme to wrest the Yukon from Canada and make of it and Alaska a new Russia, to escape from the tyranny of the Czar? Then there’s a group of warmed over Fenians, still bent on punishing Britain for all it has done to the Irish by somehow causing a revolution in Canada.

So, while there is a murder at the beginning of the book, much of the thriller action is provided by the presence of spies, both foreign and domestic, and agent provocateurs intent on mischief that go far beyond the confines of peaceful Dawson City.

Delany keeps busy producing books at the rate of about one a year. Aside from the four Klondike books, there are six in the Constable Molly Smith series, set in a town modeled after Nelson, BC, three standalone suspense novels, a book for reluctant readers and, most recently an entry, under the pen name of Eva Gates, in the mystery genre known as the “cozy” style, with the title of By Book or By Crook.


Bookends: All of Yukon Sport in one big package October 12, 2015

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Bookends: All of Yukon Sport in one big package

By Dan DavidsonYukon Sport

January 7, 2015

– 766 words –


Yukon Sport: An Illustrated Encyclopedia

By John Firth

Figure 1 Publishing

Distributed by Raincoast Books

352 pages


I’m kidding John Firth when I tell him that I’m getting my exercise in December by lifting and reading his new book, but he agrees with me immediately. It does, in fact, weigh in at about 2 ½ pounds on my bathroom scale. It’s what we call a coffee table book, and if you put legs under it, it could serve as an end table. It’s not the sort of volume that you hold in front of you in the air while reading it. A tabletop, or at least a lap, is required. When it comes to sheer heft, it’s not light reading.

I recall sitting down with John to discuss what little I know about Klondike sports in Riverwest Café on Front Street about a year and a half ago, wondering just how he would tackle this rather massive subject, and feeling a little odd to be on the other side of an interview. He had, of course, previously written a couple of interesting books about the Yukon Quest (Yukon Challenge) and the Yukon River Quest (River Time), as well as a book about Ramish Ferris’ quest to help wipe out polio (Better than a Cure) and the story of the Jamaican Doglsed Team (One Mush) but those were books about individuals or about a single sport. I reasoned that this was a vastly different project, requiring a different approach.

It also required a lot of interviews and research. Firth says he has been collecting stories, interviews and material for some three decades. In his introduction he credits Kathy Jones-Gates, my former co-editor at the Klondike Sun, with doing a lot of research as well.

The book is structured like an encyclopedia, with 97 entries, beginning with “Aboriginal Sport” and running through the alphabet to” Yukon Sport and Recreation”. Rather than being a general history of Yukon sports, it’s like 97 little histories, some of which overlap a bit. Each one offers up some of the bald facts of the activity, but many also contain little anecdotes, snippets from interviews and extracts from newspaper articles that were written at the time.

Most of them come with pictures but some, like the one pager on arm wrestling, are just text. The very next entry, “Athletics”, runs to seven pages and has seven photographs, one of which is in colour. The book doesn’t shy away from using colour, but a good number of the photos would have been taken back when colour pictures were less common, or when news photographers only used black and white film in the days before digital cameras, so the majority of them are black and white shots.

This is not a book to be read from beginning to end. It’s a browser, with items selected according to the reader’s interests. I can easily confess to not having read it all, and to bouncing back and forth as things I have some connection with caught my eye. Certainly I read the items that had anything to do with Dawson, and that’s a lot, because so many things start here.

Faro had an entry as well. Reading the memories of the late Tim Twardochleb not long after his passing was a bit of a wrench. I taught with Wes Sullivan in Faro, and one of my classrooms was not far away from where those weights were hitting the plywood in the hallway after school while I was marking papers during the early days of weightlifting in the Yukon.

Except for the mention of the first seasonal pool in Beaver Creek (they have a much better one now), all the entries mentioning our first Yukon home came from either before or after our three years there.

I should confess that I’m quoted three times in the book. The first one is about the revival of the Highland Games here in 2012 (not 2013, as I have since pointed out to John). The second one is how the popularity of slowpitch among high school students in the 1990s was one factor used to determine when the school year in Dawson City should begin and end. The third citation is in regards to the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race, which I have been writing about annually since 1986.

I enjoyed my time with this book and, coming from someone whose most regular approach to sport is just walking, that’s a glowing recommendation.


Bookends: Climate change thriller turns up the Arctic heat November 27, 2014

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Bookends: Climate change thriller turns up the Arctic heat

By Dan Davidson

June 11, 2014

– 832 words –


Arctic DriftArctic Drift

By Clive and Dirk Cussler

Berkley Books

593 pages



It’s been a few years since I read one of Cussler’s Dirk Pitt thrillers, so when this one turned up with a plot set on Canada’s west and northern coasts, I decided to give it a try.

There have been some changes made. Dirk’s married. His wife, Loreen, is a US Senator. His former boss is now the vice-president of the USA and Dirk’s now the head of (National Underwater and Marine Agency). Dirk had children with another woman somewhere along the way and the young man is named after his father. This means that the younger man gets to be called Dirk throughout the book, while his father is called Pitt.

That’s the only really confusing part of the story, other than that the whole thing has to be taking place in some other dimension that just happens to be pretty much identical with our planet, because the degree to which tensions heat up between Canada and the USA in this story is definitely out of this world.

It doesn’t start there through. It starts with the Franklin Expedition back in 1848. On the two frozen in ships one crew has gone mad for some reason. The remaining sane crew members flee the Erebus and make for the Terror and some degree of safety. Eventually, as we know, they all die on the ice, but the mystery of the madness remains unsolved for the next 160 years.

Later on, off the coast of British Columbia, near Kitimat, the crew of a pleasure cruiser is overtaken at sea by a ghastly white mist and die in agony in mere minutes.

Later Dirk and sister Summer find the boat and report the tragedy, leading them to explore more around the area of Terra Green’s new carbon dioxide sequestration plant. Later they will find that all is not what it seems there.

In the Arctic Ocean a Canadian Coast Guard ship is rammed by what seems to be a large freighter towing a barge. It doesn’t sink, but the outrage appears to have been perpetrated by a ship flying American colours.

Off the coast of Vancouver Island a Canadian Senator stops to help a man who appears to have swamped his small boat and is in distress. But he’s not, and he pulls her into the water and drowns her.

Still later, an Arctic science exploration crew living on the ice pack is rammed by another boat that appears to be an American military vessel. All but a handful of the scientists die as their floes break up. The survivors are picked up by the NUMA ship, the Narwhal.

Finally, in Washington, a scientist comes up with a process to create artificial photosynthesis, a process that will, by itself, cut down and eliminate much of the CO2 that is being pumped into the air and contributing to whatever natural processes are already triggering climate change. Her lab blows up and she is badly injured. This gets the elder Pitt involved in the search for the rare mineral she needs to make the process work. There might have been some on one of Franklin’s ships.

Those are all the plot threads that you need to have to realize that this is a multilayered thriller with a lot of connections to some of our current problems. It’s a bit of wishful thinking to propose that anyone could find what amounts to a kill-switch for climate change, but it’s not hard to believe that some unscrupulous one per center wouldn’t find a way to make money out of the problem with a murderous scam that really just makes it worse.

There’s lots of action for the teams in this story. Young Dirk and Summer face danger off the west coast, while Pitt senior is nearly killed in an ambush in Northern Ontario. In a bit of meta-fiction, he is rescued by a gent named Clive Cussler who is touring in a nautically tricked out RV motorhome.

For the climax we move to the Arctic Ocean and some action at sea, under the sea, on Arctic islands and on the frozen hulk of the Erebus itself. If Mr. Cussler will just tell the Canadian government where he found it, we can stop looking for it. Remember, he did write the book Raise the Titanic some years before the actual wreck was found.

As I said at the beginning, a book that almost has the Canadian government declaring war on the USA has to be set on some other planet. There are a lot of coincidences in this story and I had to smile at some of the events, but it was a cracking good yearn and it moved right along.

Cussler hasn’t had any luck getting his books translated into movies, or I’d suggest this one.



Bookends: Many things tilt this teenager’s world November 25, 2014

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Bookends: Many things tilt this teenager’s world

By Dan Davidson

April 22, 2014

– 800 words –




Groundwood Books

271 pages



There comes a time in the life of a young person when the whole world seems to tilt. There may be many such times, in fact. For Stan Dart the first one was when his father, Ron, packed up and left with Kelly-Ann, abandoning Stan, Lily and their mother, Isabelle.

With Mom there has been a succession of failed relationships since then, and each of them has tilted Stan’s world a little. The current one, with Gary, seems to be working out, and he’s not at all sure how he feels about that.

It’s been five years since he has had to worry about a permanent other male presence, and he’s kind of got used to picking up the pieces of their lives that his mom seems to drop from time to time.

Not that he doesn’t love his mom. There’s a rather sweet conversation that they have about halfway into the book and no son who didn’t love his mother would have been able to stick around for the whole thing.

What’s been rocking Stan’s world the most lately is the new girl, Janine Igwash. She’s constantly on his mind and when she asks him to go to a dance with her, he’s totally flabbergasted. Even though his friends warn him the buzz is that she’s “tilted” (read – into girls) he can’t give up the idea of spending time with her.

It’s a really awkward relationship, on both their parts. Stan’s never been on a date, as such, and Janine has never actually been interested in a guy before, so they circle around each other quite uncertainly for much of the book, running towards and away from each other while they make up their minds.

In his less frantic moments, Stan is trying hard to make the school’s basketball team, and the proper ways to make different types of basketball shots become metaphors for all kinds of other activity as the story moves along.

A final big tilt comes Stan’s way when his birth father turns up with the half-brother he’s produced with Kelly-Ann. We’re not sure what’s happened here. Did she kick him out or did he just leave her? Do the garbled words coming from Feldon, Stan’s new half-brother, mean that Kelly-Ann is having an affair with someone else and that they’ve taken off to Montego Bay – or is all of this completely out to lunch?

What does Ron want? How does Stan feel about Feldon? How does Lilly feel about him? What scenes will develop when Gary and Ron are at the house at the same time?

As it turns out Gary seems to improve by comparison with Ron. In fact most of Stan’s residual good feelings about Ron pretty much melt away the night he finds his dad preparing to take off again with Feldon in order to avoid getting caught there by Kelly-Ann.

Stan talks him out of taking Feldon and watches as Ron “shuffled his old gray self in to the back of (the taxi) and said something to the driver. Bus station? Train station? Somewhere on the edge of the highway? Stan didn’t want to know.”

That seems to be the point where he becomes determined not to be the man he has seen his father become, and so he is rather distressed when he and Janine give in to teenage desire while he feels they ought to be looking after Feldon (who has fallen asleep in the downstairs closet).

When she says, “I’d love to see your room” it’s pretty much all over for Stan, and the next few pages are likely to get this book some sort of age rating, even though it’s all very poetic. Later, he’s terrified that he’s become a father, but it turns out she had this all pretty well planned for.

At its core, this is a book about relationships and desire. Some of the relationships work out and some don’t. It appears that some of the characters learn important lessons – and that some just blunder on heedlessly.

There’s lots of tension in this story and yet it’s quite funny in a number of ways. We spend it inside Stan’s head, and I’m not sure he’s an entirely reliable narrator, but he means well and he wants to get things right, so we like him and we cheer for him.

The story has several happy endings, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that, because they’re not exactly what you may be thinking they are.

Alan Cumyn is the current writer-in-residence at Berton House and was one of the four mentor authors at this week’s Young Authors’ Conference.




Bookends: Remembering the 1970 Dempster Patrol November 25, 2014

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The Last PatrolBookends: Remembering the 1970 Dempster Patrol

By Dan Davidson

April 29, 2014

– 735 words –


The Last Patrol:

Following the Trail of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police’s Legendary Lost Patrol

By Keith Billington

Caitlin Press

192 pages



There seems to have been a fondness for new books related to the Lost Patrol over the last year or so. Back in February I reviewed Kerry Karram’s Death Wins in the Arctic, an informative book that mentioned a few of the commemorative runs that have been made along the Dempster over the years since Inspector Fitzgerald’s ill-fated patrol.

One run that she did not mention was the one that is the subject of this book, the 1970 expedition from Fort McPherson to Dawson City.

Keith Billington, the instigator of this adventure, spent several years as a nurse posted in Fort McPherson, and was spurred to activity by an initiative launched by the NWT government in 1969 to look “for projects that would typify life in the Territories in order to celebrate their centennial the following year.”

Billington sent off a proposal to the government for a patrol reenactment that “should honour the Gwich’in men who had worked as guides and special constables for the RNWMP (Royal Northwest Mounted Police) patrol system and provided much of the skill that was required for the members of the force to survive long trips in adverse weather and inhospitable terrain.”

The project was approved and Billington recruited ten local men to join him in the long trek by dog team to Dawson. Things got a little complicated by the fact that Billington, his wife, Muriel, and their family had finished their six year stint in the NWT and were being relocated by the federal department which controlled most northern health posts at this time, to a new post in northern British Columbia. Still, he managed to keep the project on track and selected a group of men who ranged in age from young men to elders.

Billington has told part of this story previously in his 2008 memoir House Calls by Dogsled, which I reviewed here some years ago. Subsequently I learned a bit more about the adventure from the late Archdeacon Ken Snider, who was the parish priest at St. Paul’s Anglican Church at that time, and one of the folks on this end of the adventure who helped to make it happen.

Billington has assumed that some readers might not be familiar with the original account as recorded by the late Dick North and some other scribes, whose books I recommend if you want that whole story. You’ll get enough here to whet your appetite for more.

After spending the first 66 pages providing details of the background and planning for what came to be called the Dempster Patrol, including sketches of the participants, he falls into a pattern of alternating chapters. Short chapters, usually only 2 to 4 pages, indicated by a thumbnail photo of the Inspector, retell an abbreviated version of the 1910 debacle, while longer chapters tell the first person story of the 500 kilometre Dempster Patrol.

The commemorative patrol was difficult enough, but it was larger as well as much better provisioned and equipped than the original. It had everything it needed to live off the land, as well as several supply caches stashed along the way. Most importantly – and everyone agrees that this is what killed the 1910 patrol – the 1970 trek had experienced First Nation locals who knew the trails and knew how to survive in the bush.

Meals on the Dempster Patrol may have become predictable after a time, but never got down to the “dog meat and tea” that was recorded so often in Fitzgerald’s increasingly sparse journal.

There are lots of Dawson names in this account, including the mayor of the day, Fabien Salois, Percy and Joe Henry, Chester Henderson, Ken Snider, Barb and Henry Hanulik and Richard Martin. It’s a fascinating and lively account, sprinkled with enough pictures to give a good sense of what the trip was like.

The Billingtons ended up in Prince George, from whence they venture forth to cross country ski and travel by snowmobile in the winter and double sea kayak in the summer. This is the fourth book Keith has mined from their time in the north. At this writing he is one of two surviving members of the Dempster Patrol.




Bookends: On the dogsled trail to Dawson in the 1970s November 25, 2014

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It’s only fair to say that the author hated this review and, in my own defence, a couple of people who read the book told me I was too kind.



Bookends: On the dogsled trail to Dawson in the 1970s

By Dan Davidson

May 7, 2014

– 735 words –


Dog Team to Dawson: A Quest for the Cosmic Bannock and other Yukon Stories

By Bruce T. BatchelorDog Team to Dawson

Agio Publishing House

267 pages



Bruce Batchelor was still a bachelor when most of the stories in the collection of Yukon memories took place. For those who may have read his earlier book about wilderness life in the Pelly area, Nine Dog Winter, the stories in this book come before that one.

The bulk of this book is the story referenced in the subtitle: “The Quest for the Cosmic Bannock”. I’m not entirely sure why is has that title, other than that it sounds like a very 70s sort of existential way to think about the experience. Both Batchelor and his mushing partner, Jan Prenty, consumed lots of bannock on the trail from Pelly Crossing to Dawson City, but there wasn’t anything particularly cosmic about it.

That part of the book takes up the first 193 pages, the remaining three stories being short pieces. Two of these are personal essays about experiences in the Yukon and the other is a short version of the Mad Trapper’s tale.

Batchelor and Prenty met quite by accident in a bar in Whitehorse where he was speculating about the joys of a long trek in the later part of the winter with dogs and a sled. Since he didn’t have enough dogs or a sled or anyone to make the trip with him, it was all hot air at that point. And then Prenty allowed she thought it was a good idea and she’d like to go along.

There was no romance involved here. They’d barely met when she said, “I want you to take me winter camping.”

The idea seemed to take wing among their friends and associates as quickly as an Internet meme does today, and soon the pair were being offered dogs, a sled (a toboggan, actually), supplies and all sorts of encouragement. The blue-sky dream had become a reality.

They planned to embark from the Pelly Farm, after visiting with the Bradley family. After some consultation and debate they decided to use as much as they could of the Dawson Overland Trail, which you can still see along the banks of the Yukon River. Before getting to that, they followed a trail made by Peter Isaac and made their way to Fort Selkirk, where they spent some time with Danny and Abby Roberts.

It was a difficult trek. They had planned to make the run in eight to ten days, finishing up on the Yukon River ice on the final run to Dawson. The dogs had never worked together before, so that was tough. There was ice and slush and overflow water to contend with. Their traces wore out, or were chewed through, and the trail abraded the wood of the toboggan until it actually wore through. If they hadn’t been able to borrow a proper sled from Roger Mendelssohn later on, they would not have been able to finish the trip.

While there was much tension and difficulty along the way, there were a lot of good moments as well. For both of them one of these was when they found a pill canister full of placer gold nuggets in a long abandoned miner’s cabin.

Other names were dropped along the way. They spent a bit of time with the Burian family and Alan Nordling was one of the other people they encountered on their trip, along with John Tapsell and Brian MacDonald.

Despite all the problems, the trip did something for them. Prenty married a trapper and raised a family on a trap line. Batchelor went on to have his Nine Dog Winter marry Marsha, his partner on that later adventure. They now live in Victoria and he works in the publishing trade, while doing a bit of writing.

The second story in the book, “Cost Plus” is about some misadventures in the oil exploration trade up near Eagle Plains, while the final piece, “Love Story for Lucy”, is about the relationship between a man and his best friend, a dog. “Trapping the Mad Trapper” is a short version of that story, enlivened by quotations from a journal kept by Mrs. Helen Thronthwaite, a registered nurse who talked to some of the First Nations men who participated in the hunt for Albert Johnson.



Bookends: A writer’s search for the roots of depression and suicide October 16, 2014

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Bookends: A writer’s search for the roots of depression and suicide

By Dan Davidson

February 26, 2014

– 813 words –


What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son’s Quest to Redeem the PastWhat Disturbs Our Blood

By James FitzGerald

Random House Canada

512 pages



The title of James Fitzgerald’s memoir/history/detective story says a lot. What was there in his family’s past that needed to be redeemed?

Why, as he wrote in the essay that eventually grew into the book, did he react to the family home this way?

“As a small boy, I believed our house was haunted. In my bones, I felt that 186 Balmoral Avenue – – the gloomy, stuccoed-brick three-storey where I lived until age seven — was inhospitable to children. Sometimes, when I wandered alone through the dark rooms, I felt sure that some daunting, suppressed secret was about to burst out of the cast-iron radiators, flooding the hardwood floors.”

Why was his mother so shocked when one day, at the age of six, he announced that he wanted to change his name to Gerry?

Where had that come from? He did not know then that his grandfather’s name was John Gerald FitzGerald, that he generally went by Gerry and that he was one of the biggest names in Canadian public health history, right up there with Banting and Best, who worked out of the Connaught Labs that he founded.

James grew up in a desperately dysfunctional family, led by Gerry’s son Jack, who followed his father into medicine and had his own stellar career, though never one that equalled the heights of international acclaim his father had soared.

Indeed, jazz loving Jack would probably have been much happier running a nightclub and hobnobbing with the musicians who were frequent houseguests at the FitzGeralds.

James mother was also unhappy in her choice of career, which in the post WWII years up to the mid-1960s pretty much meant being a housewife and mother. She had other aspirations which she crushed.

James’ personal concerns probably began with watching his father fall apart in the middle of his life and end his days in a state of depression and drug induced lethargy in a small apartment, sans wife, sans children sans ability, sans self-respect. In James’ judgment, Jack was a victim of the psychology wars, where scalpel and medication were the politically correct tools of the trade and Freud was still spoken of as a Viennese quack with a dirty mind.

Much of this book, indeed, is an indictment of the profession, and James has researched it so thoroughly that he is now able to make part of his living telling auditoriums full of uncomfortably squirming doctors just what they are doing wrong.

Delving back into his family’s past he discovered case after case of depression and mental instability, and eventually found out what no one had ever told him about his grandfather, what the medical profession of the day had hidden away, that Gerry had crashed and burned in the middle of his life, too, and that his third suicide attempt had been successful.

Jack was treated unsuccessfully after his own attempt at ending it all.

James began his work this book partly out of a desire to figure out what was wrong with his family so that he could avoid the same fate.

For him, the talking cure so despised of the doctors who treated his grandfather and father, was the beginning of salvation. After that he was not quite so shocked to find that his great-grandfather was also depressed, that a great-uncle had leapt from a bridge, and that other relatives were alcoholics and manifested strange behaviors. After that, he had hope that finding out as much as he could about his forbears might be his own cure.

Aside from depression and insecurity being a family plague, James is quite convinced that there is something in the Irish temperament that rises in some families, turning into the Black Dog that Winston Churchill (who lived in Ireland as a young boy) used to complain about. Part of his research was to trace his family tree back as far as he could, only to find that there had been problems long before the FitzGeralds immigrated to Canada.

If you want to read an abbreviated version of this story, James’ National Magazine Award winning 2002 article “Sins of the Fathers” can be found on at http://www.sanofipasteur.ca/, the website of Sanofi, the company that now owns the Connaught Laboratories that his grandfather founded, where vaccines for diphtheria and other diseases as well as the discovery and refinement of insulin took place.

The book is worth the read even if you have already perused the article. It won the 2010 Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and is available in both physical and digital editions.

James FitzGerald was the writer-in-residence at Berton House during the fall of 2013.