December 7, 2010

Tales of a Pioneer Journalist

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.

Robert Service had that right. Tales of a Pioneer Journalist is the kind of book it's great to read once in a while to remind ourselves that we live in highly civilized times in Canada compared to, say, 150 years ago. These stories were written by David Williams Higgins about incidents he was involved in or wrote about as a newspaperman in Victoria and Yale BC around the 1850s. This was the time of the Cariboo gold rush and Victoria was little more than a collection of hastily slapped-together wooden structures along the muddy road (Wharf Street) between them and the harbour. Thousands of travellers stopped en route to the gold fields or on the way back to San Francisco, often either flat broke and desperate or flush with bags of gold nuggets which they spent in some bizarre ways.

There were few women and children but those few generally had it pretty rough. One woman disguised herself as a man so she could live in a mining camp closer to her husband only to have her cover blown when she went into labour. Another woman who was also having a baby sent her husband, a reformed alcoholic, out to get a doctor. He got waylaid at the bar for a few drinks, and returned home two or three days later to find his wife and baby frozen on the floor.

Add fires and duels, murders and tragic drownings of hundreds aboard creaky steamers, lawlessness and love and some hilarity and - well, this book pretty well kept me spellbound and I could hardly believe it took place in now-elegant Victoria where I bought this book. At Munro's Book Store, of course, which is hands down my favourite bookstore anywhere. Whoever buys for Munro's must have exactly my taste because I usually want every single book I see there.


  1. You had me at the first line! No surprise there, eh? This sounds like a great book and you know I'd love to read it. I'm thinking I might like Munro's too.

  2. haha. I definitely thought of you when I put that Robert Service quotation in there. And you would love Munro's.