________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 5 . . . . October 28, 2005


The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay, 1897-1899.

Pierre Berton.
Erin, ON: The Boston Mills Press (Distributed in Canada by Firefly Books), 1983/2005.
239 pp., pbk., $29.95.
ISBN 1-55046-453-1.

Subject Heading:
Klondike River Valley (Yukon)-Gold discoveries-Pictorial works. 

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Ronald J. Hore.

***½ /4


Some paid more and got nothing in return. All along the Chilkoot trail the confidence men waited for the suckers, building fires to warm them, constructing wayside ledges to take the weight of their burdens, raising tents to shield them from the gale. Disguised as fellow climbers, hauling fake sledges - mere hollow cages with pick handles protruding from them - or carrying packs filled with feathers, they seemed to be Good Samaritans playing parlour games. But the pea was never to be discovered beneath the shell, and the men seeking riches were always poorer for the encounter.

Yet no mountebank could dampen their ardour for long. Over and over again they struggled forward, forced almost to their knees by the steepness of the slope, until they seemed like supplicants before an altar. Hardship served only to fuel their fanaticism; personal tragedies along the way only hardened their hearts. One man lay beside the trail for a day in agony from a broken leg; they paid him no heed, trudging on unseeing, until a professional packer carried him back down the mountain.


As the title suggests, this book tells the story of the Klondike gold rush of 1897 to 1899. This is a paperback version of a book originally published in 1983. Sub-titled A Photographic Essay / 1897-1899, the format is large, 9" x 10.25", as is the print, a boon for those readers with older eyes. The book consists of 240 pages with 200 black and white photographs from the period. Some of these photographs have never been published before. This book could be considered as a companion volume to Pierre Berton's Klondike, first published in 1958, but The Klondike Quest stands up very well on its own merits.

     The book consists of nine chapters, each one describing a particular phase of the gold rush. Each chapter consists, first, of text describing the events, then a section of photographs from that time period. For example, Chapter One, "Gold Fever," opens with two maps of the area, then has six pages of text followed by eleven pages of captioned photographs. Three of those photographs take up a full page each, two take up a complete two-page spread. The advantage of this format is the amount of detail that these sizes allow for. You can clearly make out the expressions on the faces of those involved. It is interesting to watch how the expressions change as you progress through the book, from optimistic in the beginning, to almost hopeless by the end.

     This format continues throughout the book. In Chapter Two, "The Shimmering Sands," we have three pages of text followed by eleven pages of photographs; Chapter Three, "The Trail of Dead Horses," has three and a half pages of text and sixteen pages of photographs. The other chapters are: “Up the Golden Stairs,” “The Armada,” “The Shuffling Throng,” “The Creeks,” “City of Gold” and finally, “All That Glitters.” One trick used to good advantage is the taking one of the larger pictures and later on focusing in on a blow-up of just a portion of the original. This approach allows the reader to stare into the eyes of a character from our past uncluttered by his surroundings.

     While the photographs form the heart of the book, the text does not take second place. Some readers may find Berton's prose "a bit over the top"; however, it flows well and certainly suits the topic and time period under discussion. Even in the relatively short amount of text allowed for, the author provides us with personal human details rather than simple sweeping generalities. He also gives us bits of information about a piece of history with which we may have felt familiar. How many readers knew that the detachment of Mounties at the top of the White Pass also helped define the disputed border with the Americans, and that they held that position with a Maxim gun? How many readers thought about those same members of the North West Mounted Police whose health was permanently damaged by their post waist-deep in snow and melt water? Most books on the gold rush concentrate on the miners and not those working to maintain some semblance of law and order.

      The Klondike Quest should have a broad appeal to readers of all ages who like information provided about a brief but dramatic period in our history, or to those who simply enjoy the many photographs. The pictures alone will offer hours of viewing.

Highly Recommended.

Ronald J. Hore, involved with the Canadian Authors Association and writer's workshops for several years, retired from the business world in Winnipeg, MB.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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