CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 14 . . . . March 18, 2005
Gold Rush Orphan, an historical fiction novel, is based on the author's grandfather's journal, which he kept from February to October, 1898, on his journey to the Klondike during the Gold Rush. The author includes the original hand-written entries and weaves the narrative in and around those entries to satisfy her curiosity about her grandfather's trip. "Nearly fifteen"-year-old Jeremy Britain is a mistreated orphan and apprentice, and he is on a mission. Leaving Vancouver to join the throngs of men (some with families) on their way to the Klondike, Jeremy also hopes to strike it rich. Shortly, he finds himself in Skagway where the notorious Soapy Smith and gang instill fear in him and make his business of selling papers difficult by demanding a large portion of his earnings. Dejected, Jeremy meets Mr. Fraser, a man willing to listen to his troubles and let him tag along with his crew for part of their journey.
Along the lengthy and arduous trek, the men have to make repeated trips to transport their gear and animals, and Jeremy proves himself hard working and determined, but, when his fellow travelers find out he has been lying about meeting his father in Dawson all along, Jeremy doubts they'll let him continue on with them and is afraid of being left behind. He doesn't want to be alone. But, after Jeremy answers a few of their questions honestly and correctly, the men accept him as a permanent member of the prospecting team.
The spring creates new challenges as the men must now construct homemade rafts to float along the river. Only knowing they plan to go to Dawson, Jeremy wonders why they suddenly change course and head in the direction of unmapped land, but he furiously pans for gold the entire time the others spend looking for Macleod's fabled and elusive pass--the promised jackpot of gold.
Told from the third person perspective, Gold Rush Orphan's linear plot is easy to follow and cinematic. Its characters are credible and lifelike, particularly the emotional but determined protagonist and his substitute father figure, Mr. Fraser, who is both just and value governed. The others in the gang are slightly less vivid characters, but each member of the crew has a unique personality to create an overall balanced dynamic. Except for a few minor mentions of wives and a select few other women, female characters are absent from the narrative. Though the pace is slow at times, it is appropriate given the laborious nature of Jeremy's journey to the Klondike. He has time to reflect upon his surroundings, fatigue, hunger, and emotions, and Duncan's descriptive writing style echoes the protagonist's processing of these realities.
Gold Rush Orphan is, apart from being a valuable account of history, an orphan story, but it is also a coming of age story, in which a boy's rite of passage is complete after the completion of his difficult (physical and emotional) journey. He finds family, respect, honesty, acceptance, and security with the men, and they come to represent all the things he never had in his life as an orphan. By the end of the novel, the men consider him an adult, since he has been "working like a man the whole trip." Also, Jeremy's sexual awareness grows; when he sees the woman in a red dress and later fantasizes about her, he scolds himself. His other adult-like experiences include drinking alcohol (and too much of it) for the first time and feeling the results the next morning. He talks about building muscles and goes through the embarrassment of puberty, especially when the men laugh when his voice cracks. His emotional ups and downs are also characteristic of the difficulties of adolescence.
Delving deeper, Jeremy begins to think philosophically, wondering about questions surrounding life and death at key points in the narrative. When one of the dogs dies, he wonders, "where does life go? One minute it's there and the next, where?" Duncan's poetic turns of phrase heighten these philosophical enquiries.
This book is not only a wonderful piece of Canadiana, but it is also a spiritual, historical, and emotional journey that will captivate readers of all ages.
Andrea Szilagyi is a graduate student studying children's literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.