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.