Columnists

Pioneer Fashion Strikes Gold

By Becky Toyne

Post-Victorian pioneer style is in. Big beards and work boots (boys); peasant skirts and sensible-heeled ankle booties (girls); huddling in old timey, barn-board-clad bars around old-timey-branded craft beer and brown liquor (everyone). Axe throwing is a now a hip way to spend one’s free time, and knitting has been on the up-and-up for years.

Earlier this month, I took a trip to the Yukon — the heart-stoppingly beautiful slice of Canada’s north west, not the bar in Parkdale — and, on the trail of the world’s last great gold rush in Dawson City, the Parks Canada employees strolling around in Victorian garb looked actually kind of cool. There is an inevitable amount of Disneyfication to a town such as Dawson in tourist season, with every store and restaurant named for a famous Klondiker and every employee playing a role, but Dawson’s aesthetic reminded me of something closer to home: it felt a little like being in the Drake General Store. Indeed, the displays in Toronto’s aspirational lifestyle emporium, complete with sourdough brew bread mix and mugs designed to look like they’re made from chipped enameled tin, might have walked straight out of the Dawson City Visitor Centre. What the hardy prospectors started, the hip urbanites continue.

In addition to wool three-piece suits and skirts, Dawson is of course also swimming in stories. I was first inspired to visit when I heard about the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Berton House Writers’ Retreat, through which Canadian writers are offered a three-month stay in CanLit icon Pierre Berton’s childhood home, with space to think, to write, and to get to know Canada’s north. Having yet to publish a book myself I won’t be eligible to apply for the residency any time soon, however, so took matters into my own hands and bank account and stumped up for the trip of a lifetime. And anyway, who wouldn’t want to throw some coin at a good gold-rush narrative?

Like all good bookworms, I prepared for my trip by reading stuff. Charlotte Gray’s fantastic Gold Diggers, which the author researched during her own stay at Berton House, follows the model pioneered by Berton himself of telling history through personal stories rather than text-book facts. Once in Dawson, the same collection of Klondike memoirs and biographies are offered in every general store: the memoir of Martha Black, who hiked the Chilkoot Trail in Victorian skirts (not yet knowing that she was pregnant) and went on to become the First Lady of the Yukon; Lael Morgan’s Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush, a vaudevillian catalogue of the early female pioneers who entertained (and mined) the miners; I Married the Klondike, Laura Beatrice Berton’s memoir of settling in Dawson City in 1907, where she became the mother of Pierre, whose Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush 1896–1899 also stares out from every shelf. Every one of these books is well worth a read, especially when you have the midnight sun to do it by.

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On arrival in Dawson, I met with Teresa Conkin, a Parks Canada employee by day who is taking a sabbatical to work on some new projects, among them, launching an independent publisher. Rabbit Creek Press (read your Klondike history to discover the significance of the name) is a shiny new press that aims to “bring beautiful books into the world which showcase the land, culture, history and uniqueness of the North and West of the Americas.”

Like the coming-around-again fashions of having a beard on your chin and an assortment of rusty old grocer’s signs in your kitchen, Rabbit Creek Press’ launch title, Klondike Colours, has struck trend-redux gold. Originally conceived as a colouring book for children and tourists, by the time it hit stores in the spring, Klondike Colours was riding a wave of a second new-old trend: grown-ups colouring like kids.

Earlier this summer, reports circulated throughout the media that colouring books have become the latest anti-stress mechanism for many French women (French Women Don’t Get Stressed (Anymore), coming to a bestseller list near you?). At Type Books, where I peddle wares on Sundays and where we number many crafty types among our clientele, we’ve long done a brisk trade in cross-over adult/kid titles such as Bun B’s Rap Coloring & Activity Book, The Sneaker Colouring Book and Advanced Style: The Coloring Book. In Klondike Colours, in which each page features original line drawings by Canadian artist Andrée Bélanger, modern-day tourists with cameras and RVs explore the Klondike alongside stampede-era prospectors and gussied-up dancehall girls. The ghosts of Dawson past roam every page, just as they stroll the streets of the real-world Dawson in period (or not-so-period) costume, and sit rustily inside display cases filled with aesthetically pleasing ye olden goods.

There’s an aspirational element to the period evoked by both Klondike Colours and by Dawson itself that’s as common now to urban Toronto as it is to the Klondike. As for the anti-stress part, I can’t imagine a better way to unwind than with a trip around the colourful stories of Canada’s north, with the tales of some hard-scrabble miners and good-time girls in tow.

Klondike Colours is available from all good Yukon booksellers, or online at rabbitcreekpress.ca. But if a trip to the Land of the Midnight Sun isn’t in your plans any time soon, you can also buy it at Type Books on Queen Street West.

Information about the Berton House Writers’ Retreat in Dawson City, who is eligible and how to apply can be found here.


Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One, a bookseller and events and communications coordinator for Type Books, a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and the author of a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs