CM . . . .
Volume VI Number 4 . . . . October 15, 1999
Sign A BlindThis is a both fun and valuable book for Canadian history students for, after reading it, they can never say that Canadian history is dull. More importantly, however, the book demonstrates the important difference between conventional notions of our past and what an examination of historical records can reveal. Gold Diggers of the Klondike shows that our accepted images of life in the gold rush town are essentially mythical constructions that have been created by contemporary or modern novelists, politicians, moralists, movie makers, etc. for their own designs. The reality was often far different but not necessarily less interesting.
Ryley does not dispute the historical truth that Dawson City at the beginning of the 1898 gold rush was a wild frontier town. The lure of instant wealth brought thousands of men to the rugged Yukon. Quite naturally, the more dubious elements followed close on their heals, including prostitutes, sometimes euphemistically described in the19th century as "fallen doves of the tenderloin" or "our sisterhood who have lost the priceless jewel of virtue." However, this "soft" attitude changed very quickly.
Ryley focuses on what she calls, the changing nature of "sexual commerce" in the class-based economic and social system of Dawson City. Prostitution was first tolerated as an inevitable social structure of a lower class frontier town, but it was never accepted as a social good by a rising middle-class. As the town developed further, the fabled frontier mentality soon gave way to conventional Anglo-Victorian economic, political, and social morality.
People were concerned with property values; they wanted Ottawa to give the territory responsible government; middle-class burgers were concerned about their wives and children; and strict conventional rectitude forbade licentious behavior. Consequently, the solid citizens of Dawson City used their legal and political powers to push the sordid elements to the city's outskirts and to the curb vice. However, to the dismay of the middle-class, the image of a wide-open gold rush town remained with the city.
What is ironic, writes Ryley, is that today's "gold diggers" of the Klondike are government or government sponsored economic initiatives. They attempt to extract tourist wealth by exploiting the stereotypical myths and images of 19th century gold rush days: wide-open debauchery coupled with legalized gambling in "authentic" honky-tonk saloons replete with the ubiquitous high-stepping dance hall girls. The proper citizens of early Dawson City did their best to rid their city of vice, but now government capitalizes on it for perceived economic benefits.
The singular focus on the frontier mentality, writes Ryley, leads historians to forget other important social issues that developed of the gold rush times, in particular the endemic racism First Nation peoples suffered under and still experience. First Nations peoples were evicted from their land and were not offered treaties or reserves in case gold was discovered on the land; their traditional way of life was destroyed when hunting and fishing areas were decimated by mining and logging; and they were restricted to low paying jobs.
Teachers and librarians should not be afraid of this book because of its subject matter. Ryley handles this historical issue objectively, and the book naturally leads into contemporary social problems.
Ian Stewart, a regular contributor to CM, also reviews books on Canadian history for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association.
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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.