Sunday, January 27, 2013

Truth and Lies in Nonfiction

James Frey was hardly a trendsetter when he shocked the literary world with the things he made up in his memoir. You can’t do much better for embellishment in nonfiction than the team of George Carmack and George Snow, collaborating on Carmack’s memoir.

When George Carmack rushed to Fortymile to show off the $12.75 in coarse gold he’d tapped into a Winchester cartridge, he got a lukewarm reception from the prospectors there. “They would not believe him, his reputation for truth being somewhat below par,” said William Ogilvie, trusted surveyor and commissioner of Dawson City. “The miners said that he was the greatest liar this side of – a great many places.”

George T. Snow was an actor who brought vaudeville to gold camps at Fortymile, Circle City, and Dawson City. Authorized by the Yukon Order of Pioneers to compile a written history of prospecting in the Yukon, Snow got several of his mining friends, including Carmack, to write down their experiences. To these he applied his showmanship.

It’s tough sorting truth from fiction in the memoir started by Carmack and finished by Snow. This week I’ve been writing about the divided loyalties of Kate’s family, to their Tlingit relatives on the one hand and George Carmack on the other. Of primary importance to the region was access from the coast to the Yukon River over the Chilkoot Trail, a route tightly controlled by the coastal Tlingit.

There was another way in, over what came to be called the White Pass, but out of fear and respect for their Chilkoot relatives, the Tagish were reluctant to speak of it. In June of 1897, with much encouragement of Ogilvie, Kate’s brother Jim led Captain William Moore over the pass, an arduous journey that involved a lot of bushwhacking, as the trail was used only in winter.

In Carmack’s handwritten memoirs, there are two sentences about Jim taking him, too, over the White Pass. “I was about the second white man that ever went over that pass,” Carmack wrote. “I camped overnight near the place where the station is on the summit.” That’s all he says on the subject.

Did Jim really take Carmack over the White Pass that year? Maybe, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense, given Jim’s reluctance to defy his Chilkoot relations, not to mention the poor condition of the trail.

Writing years after the railroad went in through White Pass, Snow wrings quite a story out of Carmack’s two sentences:

We went up the Skagway and over the White Pass; I went to look this route over to see if a peak trail could not be built from salt water to the Lakes, although I could see that pass was nearly a thousand feet lower than the upper pass but it was some ten miles longer and the west side very rough and a pack trail would be very expensive. I camped one night at the summit right near where the station now is, and sitting by our campfire I got to thinking about that great unexplored country expanding for more than a thousand miles North of me. I seemed to have a vision of the future. I saw a huge locomotive with its long string of coaches gliding through that rocky divide and heard the echo from its hoarse whistle reverberating from the mighty granite cliffs. I turned to my companion and said Jim, by and by you hear big toot, toot, and seem big fire wagon go this way. Jim just gave a grunt… turned his back to the fire and went to sleep and left me to my visions.

Keep in mind that as memoir, this version doctored by Snow is used as a primary source. With this sort of embellishment, the nonfiction writer has a good deal of sorting to do. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Love and Marriage: the Marguerite Saftig Laimee complication

Marguerite Saftig Laimee, third wife of George Carmack. Courtesy Yukon Archives.

In Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold, there’s a chapter called “A Troublesome Question” in which the common thread is the shifting of alliances as a means of managing change. The action unfolds from the perspective of three Indians: Lunaat, the Tlingit chief who’s losing control of the Chilkoot Trail; Bob, a young Northern Tutchone on a death march to deliver news of the Fortymile gold strike; and Kitty, niece of Shaaw Tlaa (Kate) and first wife of George Carmack.

Of all alliances, marriage is among the most fascinating, and it doesn’t get much more fascinating than George Carmack’s three marriages, not only on a personal level, but because of the broader sociological entanglements each represents.

There’s much to discuss. Here, let’s stick to a simple complicating factor, in the person of one Marguerite Saftig Laimee Carmack, aka (to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) Biddy McCarthy. In this particular chapter, she gets only a passing mention. I’ll have a lot more to say about her once she becomes George Carmack’s third wife.

What compelled Carmack to take an Indian bride? What were proportions of love, convenience, and strategic alliance were involved? To what extent did he care about Kitty, or later, about Kate? I wanted to reach deeply into the emotions of these alliances without resorting to speculation.

Marguerite, on the other hand, would just as soon have forgotten about her husband’s previous marriages. Read his memoirs, none written in his own hand, and you’d think she was his one and only. I had to comb other primary sources to verify that he first married Kitty, and to create a sense of what that meant to his bride. Here, an excerpt that begins with George Carmack staying behind with the Indians while his fellow prospectors leave the region for the winter:

Instructed by [Johnny] Healy, Carmack needed little persuading. The others went on, but he stayed with [Skookum] Jim on the shores of Lake Bennett, where Kitty and her family had come recently from their summer fish camp. As the caribou trampled by thousands through the narrow valley at the foot of the lake, she and Carmack were married, the Indian way.

There would be among prospectors and Yukon Indians many such marriages. As with all matters of love and allegiance, the motives and circumstances were many, but there was this overarching pattern: after mucking around for a few years in the North, a man would grow attached to a place and a lifestyle and the prospect of fortune just around the next bend in the river. But he would also tire of the company of men, and the longing for female companionship would become too strong to ignore. A white woman was out of the question. During the earliest years of prospecting on the Yukon, there simply were none.

Having come in along the northern route used by Hudson Bay traders, [Arthur] Harper, [Jack] McQuesten, and [Alfred ]Mayo all married Indian women in the summer of 1874, roughly three years after arriving in the North. Their wives were Koyukon Athabascans from the lower Yukon, nearly a thousand river miles from the Tlingit and Tagish. Theirs was a region already penetrated by Russians, some of whom had intermarried long before. While prospecting new territory, Harper, McQuesten, and Mayo might leave their wives in their villages for a year or two at a stretch, but for the most part the women lived with their husbands at the various trading posts they established up and down the Yukon, raising their children much as they had been raised, a hybrid lifestyle, part Indian and part white.

How did love factor into these matches? Undoubtedly there was an attraction, at least on the part of the husband. J. Bernard Moore, who with his father later founded the gold rush town of Skagway, followed the typical pattern. Just as Moore began to get lonely from three years of traveling up and down the Yukon, George Shotridge, son of Koh’klux, invited Moore to a potlatch. “I was twenty years old, with no great and serious thoughts of the future,” Moore said. “I felt light of heart, though lonesome at times, living in and seeing only the present.” Across the warm, crowded clan house, as Tlingit dancers swayed and rocked, back and forth and sideways, Moore locked eyes with a delicate girl of fourteen. She ran off, but when George Shotridge invited Moore to his house after the potlatch, there she was, the girl Moore called Minnie, daughter of George Shotridge and granddaughter of Koh’klux. Soon they were married.

Whether Carmack felt the same sort of attraction for her as Moore did for Minnie will never be known, because his third wife, Marguerite Laimee, erased any mention of Indian women from Carmack’s memoirs.

It would be a lot easier to write about Carmack’s first two marriages if Marguerite hadn’t burned his papers and excluded these women when she herself re-assembled his memoir. But then again, if Marguerite hadn’t come between George and his wife, Kate would never have confronted the choices that make her story so compelling.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

On a Book Returned

Today I did something I’ve never done before: I returned a brand new hardcover book.

Like every author, I adore books. Like most authors I know, my budget is tight. Between travel and book-buying, I’ve already spent a few thousand dollars on research for Wealth Woman. Before I decide I have to own a particular resource, I weigh other options, mostly library and internet.

But sometimes those options are limited, or a particular book proves so valuable that I have to own it, so I can get my hands on it whenever I need it. That’s what happened with My Old People Say. Through interlibrary loan, I borrowed Catherine McClellan’s important but obscure ethnographic study, published in 1975 by the National Museums of Canada. Though McClellan has since consolidated some of her work into cheaper and more accessible formats, the information compiled in her full study illustrates the worldview and way of life of Kate Carmack’s Tagish band in such authentic detail that I decided I had to have the set no matter the cost, which turned out to be almost $100 from Abe Books.

Then there are books too new for the library, like the one I’m returning to the bookseller, a biography of another wealthy woman who lived during Kate Carmack’s era. I got excited when I found the title, certain the parallel stories of these two women would be fascinating. I’d already discovered one such gem when I picked up from Jeff Brady’s Skaguay News and Books, more or less on a whim, a nice firsthand account called Two Women in the Klondike. Though I already owned two shelves of Klondike histories and knew more trivia about the gold rush than anyone has a right to, I absorbed every word Mary Hitchcock’s engaging firsthand account, first published in 1899 and re-released by the University of Alaska Press.

A wealthy East Coast heiress, Hitchcock went to the Klondike on a whim, bringing with her a bowling alley, portable movie theater, and a flock of pigeons. I couldn’t have invented a more interesting counterpart for the newly wealthy Kate Carmack, who as it happened traveled out of the Klondike on exactly the same river route as Hitchcock on almost exactly the same dates, so that I was able to draw from her account specifics even on weather. Since Kate never learned to read or write, I relied Hitchcock’s account of her river journey to draft passages like this one, helping to set the scene along with the cultural context for my book:

Hitchcock disembarked when the boat stopped, which was often, sternwheelers having large appetites for wood. While fighting off gnats and mosquitoes and horseflies, she gathered wild roses, mulberries, currants, and raspberries, along with groundsel, which delighted her canaries. She was forever photographing the Indians along the river, though for fear of vermin she refused to descend into a traditional community house to capture the dancing, and she writes with indignation of a group of Indian women who covered their heads with shawls, demanding a sitting fee. The tundra she mistook for prairie, lauding its potential for agricultural development. As the river narrowed, there were mountains and rapids and gorges, all wild and picturesque.

Pleased with Two Women in the Klondike, I got greedy. I found the book I’m returning, a new release. Certain it would offer up even more gems I could use, I bought it. I know book research isn’t a treasure hunt, but sometimes it feels that way. The rewards you find here and there spur you toward others, or so you hope.

If that were the only flaw of the book I’m returning, that it didn’t yield anything I could use in my project, I’d take all the blame for my bad judgment and trade it in at the local used book store. But this new book is so bad that I didn’t want anyone else wasting their money on it, which is why I decided I had to return it. Return numbers tell authors, editors, and publishing houses that books didn’t pass the muster.

I feel obligated to be generous with fellow authors whenever I can. The work we do is tough. It often goes unrewarded. As hard as we try, I’ve yet to meet an author – and I certainly count myself among them – who hasn’t turned out something subpar. For these reasons, I won’t mention here the title or the author of the book I’m returning, but I will say that I’ve seen this pattern before: an author with an established track record in nonfiction writes a book that gets a few rave reviews, and then under pressure churns out another that she must at some level realize she isn’t proud of. A team of assistants do most of the research, which the author cobbles together using a few narrative tricks: long descriptive lists of settings that are only peripheral to the people who matter, embellishment of facts to create pseudo-scenes, and broad strokes to summarize character traits, delivered in language sloppy with purpled prose and clichés.

In this book I’m returning, the transitions between the broader context of US history and individual narrative are so clunky, transparent, ludicrous that they’re laughable; I couldn’t help reading them out loud, interrupting my partner from the book he was reading, which happened to be a recent but well-crafted narrative from roughly the same era. From a summary of pre-Civil War slavery that might have come from a tenth-grade textbook, the author of my soon-to-be-returned book segues by saying that the main character’s mother is enslaved by her psyche. A few paragraphs on the woman’s inheritance follow, and then we’re returned to the broader context with, “Money may have ruled discussions in the ….households, but it was the demands of the South that inundated conversations around the rest of the country.” Really, author? That’s the best you could do? After several of these forced transitions, I couldn’t take any more. I had to quit reading.

From the book I did learn one thing. Whatever my project’s flaws, they will not be these. I refuse to make a lazy pass of the hard work that goes into crafting an engaging historical narrative – or any narrative, for that matter. My project must be more than worth the reader’s time. To honor Kate Carmack, to honor the reader, the book must be authentic and memorable and true.

$27.95 for a sloppy product, when authors and editors and publishers are scrambling fiendishly to assure the public that books are worth buying? No thanks. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Writer's Mandate

Kate Carmack, born Shaww Tlaa
With the exception of a few work-for-hire projects, most everything I've written has been because I've wanted to, not because I had to. It's a curse and a joy, this freedom. Writers get to indulge in pretty much anything, limited only by language and imagination. They also get to take a lot of wrong turns. Most have files bulging projects gone wrong.

Then there are those stories that have to be told, stories that for one reason or another can't be relegated to the never-mind folder. Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold is one of those. Once deemed the richest Indian woman in America, Kate claimed to have made the discovery of a lifetime. Though cheated out of her fortune, she stood her ground between cultures. Hers will the first book-length, mass-market gold rush history to be told from the point of view of the ones who were there first, the Indians.

From the beginning, I knew this was a story that had to be told, and that I was the one to tell it. How I reached that conclusion, and how I'm handling dozens and dozens (hundreds and hundreds?) of decisions and dilemmas connected with getting Kate's story into print will inform my 2013 teaching series. How to know this is a story that must be told? How to evaluate the merits of a project? How to know you're the right person to write it? How to organize research material? How to outline the narrative? How to refine the narrative style? Which title? How to put together a proposal? How to attract the interest of an agent and editor? How to deal with conflicting primary source material? What constitutes truth in history? In narrative? What place is there for invention in nonfiction? How to balance summary and scene? How to write scenes grounded in historical fact? How to cite sources? How to know when to stop researching and start writing? How to handle revision? How to handle culturally sensitive material? How to keep your momentum? How to pace the narrative? How decide on your form? 

These questions (and more) will be among those I address here. Whether you have an interest in writing, the Klondike, American Indian history, mining, the West, or gold, consider this your invitation to tag along as I see through to completion a project that's called to me from the start: the story of Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold.