Mining camps were everywhere you looked when I was a kid. Family mines, drift mines, placer mines, hard rock mines. So much a part of life around here I hardly gave them a thought.
I lived in a mining camp outside Fairbanks until I was six. The things I remember best went into this book–the spiders in the tailing piles, spitoons in the old dance halls,the treasured magazines, the old-timers, the gramaphone records. The scene in Bo with Karl and the dolls happened almost exactly as I wrote it. And it’s positively uncanny that LeUyen’s picture of this scene is just the way I remember it.
I always wanted to write about that camp, and about my favorite period of Alaska history, the time after the gold rushes.
Gold rushes are inherently sexy, with lots of wild, death-defying activity, over-the-top characters, and some dazzling rags-to-riches stories. But the famous Klondike gold rush of 1897 petered out pretty fast, so fast that by the time they’d built a railroad to make access to the gold fields less inhumanly difficult, it was all over. The other stampedes were just as short- lived.
By 1924, when this book starts, thousands of those stampeders had left Alaska, broke, disillusioned. There were a lot of ghost towns scattered around the interior of Alaska, big deserted dance halls with beautiful oak floors, chandeliers, stores with false fronts.
But a few stayed–a hard core of old prospectors, men who worked at the remaining mines,who stayed more because they liked the country than because they still thought they might get rich. They’d come from every country in Europe, from China and Japan and from the United States and Canada.
Some of the good time girls stayed as well, and they often went off to respectable marriages. This huge influx of men had a profound effect on the cultures of the Indians, and less so, of the Eskimos, and not just because of the technology they introduced. Many–maybe most –of present-day Alaskan Indians and Eskimos are the descendants of these miners. My own stepfather’s Irish grandfather was the first prospector who came into Alaska in 1872, well before the Klondike rush, and he and his Athabascan wife had nine children. My children’s paternal grandfather was a Scottish prospector, who stayed on after the boom times, married an Athabascan, and after delivering mail by dog team became one of the first aviators in Alaska.
Bo is dedicated to our dear friend Clarence Zaiser, a miner who’d been in the country since he was a kid. He once said to me so sadly, after finishing a story, “Well, those times are gone and they won’t come no more.” About broke my heart. Bo is my attempt to make those times come again.
These old timers are some of my favorite characters, and most of my books have one or two of them. They were, are, story tellers. I put those stories in my books, but I forgot, to my sorrow, far more stories than I remembered. The oldtimers were, it seemed to me, always in a state of high excitement, learning about this new thing and that. There was lots to get excited about. There’d been a blitz of changes since the gold rush of 1897–telegraphs and the wireless, gas boats, reindeer herding, fishwheels, airplanes, electricity, mail delivery by plane and dog team, the railroad. Automobiles, new and bigger wars. Wonder what they’d make of all the new technology today.
As to Bo, the book:
Partnerships were ubiquitous back then–all the oldtimers I knew had a partner. Of course most partnerships were formed because looking for gold was never-ending killer work, too much for one man. For Arvid and Jack the work that was too much for one man was raising a baby.
So nothing could have been more natural to the story than giving Bo a team of papas–Arvid because mining camps were littered with Swedes and Jack because I was always interested in the very few black men (and occasional black woman) who came north back then.
One of the reviewers asked me, succinctly, “are they or aren’t they?” I was startled because it had never occurred to me that anyone would think the papas were gay. I thought the old-time partner system was common knowledge– Lone Ranger and Tonto– John Wayne in “North to Alaska”– Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon!
But when the question came up I almost began to wish they WERE gay. Children’s lit could use some completely lovable characters like Jack and Arvid to further the cause so well begun.
But they couldn’t have been. In order for me to replicate those mining camp days of my childhood the papas had to be typical of their time and place, and openly gay relationships weren’t typical. (I only know of one: my mother was raised in a mining camp in New Mexico and the two women who taught at the little school were lesbians, and well respected, Mom said. One of them was Anna Nolan Clark who later won a Newbery!)
Bo’s mining camp is set in an Eskimo village on the Koyukuk because my father worked in a mine like that. A mine near a village is a lot more fun than one planted smack in the middle of the wilderness. And besides, the Eskimo cultures are fascinating, and acculturation equally so.
I name my characters often after people I’m fond of, and I often–maybe usually– model them on real people as well. One day when I was outlining the book, I thought it would be fun to make the papas big like my very large son. ( All the rest of us have more modest proportions.) Here he is in our village store with Nora, who is the inspiration for Gitnoo.
My daughter Kiki decorates clever cakes for everyone, which trait I gave to Jack.
Bo is bilingual because I knew of a white girl who was raised in a native village and learned to speak perfect Indian right along with her English. I was so jealous.
British songs like “Don’t Go in the Lion’s Den Tonight,” were, inexplicably, regular fare in the 40’s on our Fairbanks radio station, KFAR. As a result I grew up quite devoted to English music hall songs.
Regarding opera in my books. The first time I heard opera was on the Koyukuk when I was a teenager, in the cabin of an old timer who’d just taken a fresh batch of rolls out his oven. All my life any bit of Italian opera immediately brings me a joyful image of that cabin in the snow with the sunshine on the table and those rolls, so I love it. But I never saw an opera until this month, when our Fairbanks opera company did Carmen.
It might seem strange that people like that old guy on the Koyukuk, a zillion miles from any haute culture, had opera records, but nearly everyone did. The Victrola company, as a sales gimmick, gave every purchaser a whole set of Caruso records, Caruso being the rage at that time. Opera lovers, mostly European immigrants, were delighted, but those with cultural pretensions had to pretend to like their Caruso records, while a whole lot of more honest people used them for target practice.
The old cabin we lived in in Fairbanks had a gramophone in the attic and a stash of delightful–to us– 20’s music, often a bit risque or silly or maudlin. My friend Sylvia and I played them all, endlessly. Who Takes Care of the Caretaker’s Daughter While the Caretaker’s Busy Taking Care was one of our favorites so I made it Bo’s favorite too.
When I was a kid there were no good time girls at the mining camp where I was raised because there was by then a road into Fairbanks. And in Fairbanks the more righteous element insisted that the girls be segregated in some way. So they worked on “the line.” On our way home from school we’d walk by the line and the girls would call out to us, talk awhile. They were so nice to us. One of them bought me a present. A middy blouse. I know those girls were kid hungry. I would have been if I was in their position.
And in the mining villages, like ours on the Yukon, the prostitutes were gone when the big stampedes were over, but everyone had good memories of them, talked about them as if they’d just left yesterday. It seems an uncommon lot of them had been nurses and they were often the first line of defense in a medical emergency.
And so many, as I’ve mentioned, got married. My mother had two friends who were ex girls and my father had an old mining friend, a Russian, Gus Zukov, who was married to one of the girls. She’s the one who had the doll on her bed with the olive green satin spread, which I’ve put in Bo.