- Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men and Community in the Klondike by Charlene Porsild, and: Gold Diggers of the Klondike: Prostitution in Dawson City, Yukon, 1898–1908 by Bay Ryley (review)
- University of Toronto Quarterly
- University of Toronto Press
- Volume 69, Number 1, Winter 1999/2000
- pp. 288-290
- View Citation
- Additional Information
288 LETTERS IN CANADA 1998 Charlene Porsild. Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men and Community in the Klondike University of British Columbia Press. xiv, 250. 19.95 Bay Ryley. Gold Diggers ofthe Klondike: Prostitution in Dawson City, Yukon, 1898-1908 Watson and Dwyer. 108. $19.95 The Klondike Gold Rush remains a historical enigma. It is, arguably, the single most famous event in Canadian history and yet it rarely gets more than passing mention in Canadian history texts and lectures. The Klondike holds an important place in American popular culture - there is a strong line from Jack London and Charlie Chaplin through to Sergeant Preston's saloon at Disneyland - but has a much less dramatic hold on Canada's historical memory. Were it not for the literary contributions of Pierre Berton, whose book Klondike did much to popularize gold rush history, few Canadians would give the gold rush in the Yukon more than a passing thought. These two new books are welcome additions to the small pile of scholarly works on the subject. Both emerged out of graduate theses, Ryley's a master's degree at Queen's Universityand Porsild's from her PhD at Carleton University, and illustrate the quality and nature of the contribution coming from a new generationofnorthern historians. (Ryley's work reveals its origins as a thesis, and greater attention should have been paid to the selection and integration of the illustrations and photographs; Gamblers and Dreamers is a much more polished book.) The field that they have entered - the social history of the Klondike - is not as sparse as it once was. In the field of women's history, for example, Francis Backhouse's Women ofthe Klondike (1995) provided a popular accoW1t of the activities of more high profile women involved with the stampede, and Barbara Kelcey's master's thesis, "Lost in the Rush: The Forgotten Women of the Klondike Stampede' (University ofVictoria, 1989),covered similar ground. As well, several of the studies conducted on behalf of Parks Canada, especially the work of Hal Guest, provided useful insights into the themes covered in the new publications. The books by Porsild and Ryley bring the broader perspectives of the historical profession, particularly recent writing on women's history, to bear on the North, but they also endeavour to provide a distinctive contribution to the history of the Canadian North. The ideas in both books are not always new, and they tend to repeat, particularly in Ryley's case, conclusions that have already figured in the understanding of the Klondike Gold Rush and the evolution of Northern Canadian history. Porsild's account, in contrast, offers a depth of research and insight that has long been absent from studies of the Klondike experience and is therefore particularly welcome. Ryley's short book focuses on prostitution in the Klondike and, like so many works in the field, focuses more on the soci~l reformers, government HUMANITIES 289 officials, and police officers who tried to control the trade than on the women involved. She correctly demythologizes the famous 'can-can' girls of the contemporary tourist trade, and provides a less glamorous portrait of the lives and times of prostitutes during the Gold Rush. The centrepiece of Gold Diggers of the Klondike, echoing arguments advanced by earlier historians, is that the struggle to control prostitution represented a struggle between those elements of Dawson City society wishing a more stable and more 'civilized' community and those who viewed prostitution as a necessary evil. In this, as Ryley points out, Dawson City was hardly unique, falling into a pattern that was very familiar along the mining frontier. Porsild's substantial study examines the Klondike experience in a thematic fashion, prOViding a brief overview of the stampede and then offering individual chapters on First Nations, miners and workers, prostitutes and prostitution, the work of religious orders, and the activities of the professional and business classes. The book contains a useful appendix with statistical information on the Klondike population. In a sweeping assessment of the stampede, Porsild argues that the Klondike society was more international than has generally been noted, hosted more women and families than mythology and much historiography records, isolated the local First...