“There are strange things done ’neath the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold.” The words danced through my mind, unbidden, in July 2002, as the smallish airplane in which I sat circled over Dawson City, Yukon, waiting for the fog to clear so it could land. “The arctic trails have their secret tales / That would make your blood run cold.”
Those words begin The Cremation of Sam McGee, of course—probably the best-known poem ever written in Canada. I knew that its author, Robert Service, had spent several years in Dawson City, but I was vague on details. I was arriving to spend three months at Berton House, a writers’ retreat established by the late Pierre Berton in his boyhood home.
I had read somewhere that Berton House was situated directly across the street from the log cabin that Service had left for the last time in 1912. I would come to appreciate this soon enough as every afternoon, tour buses arrived and sat idling beside the house while visitors piled out to explore the Robert Service cabin and to listen to an actor eulogize the so-called Bard of the Yukon.
“A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon; / The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune.” Sure, I knew that Service had also written The Shooting of Dan McGrew. But his rhyming never rose above doggerel, right? “Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew, / And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.”
Besides, I had seen photos of Robert Service, tricked out in a suit and tie. He looked like a bank clerk. In fact, hadn’t he worked as a bank clerk? He had become famous as a writer, but that proved nothing. So, while I did poke my nose into the log cabin where Service lived and wrote, I did not bother to learn much about the old rhymester, who reminded me, in his later photos, of a white-haired Charlie Chaplin.
And that is why Robert Service: Under the Spell of the Yukon arrives like a revelation. Turns out Service was a bookish romantic who lived a galloping, non-stop life. He wrote, sang and rambled around North America like an early-days cross between Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac. He became rich and world famous as a people’s poet who wrote narrative verse about the Yukon. Narrative! The man had a gift for it. Having finished this wonderfully readable biography by Enid Mallory, I find myself asserting that Service deserves to be celebrated as Canada’s Robbie Burns, complete with statues and annual dinners.
Service was born in Lancashire in 1874, the eldest son of an alcoholic Scot and a spirited English woman who managed almost to keep the family together. As an awkward, lonely youth, Service resorted to books, discovered Robert Louis Stevenson, and yearned, at age 14, to join the Royal Navy. To prevent this, his father found him a job in a bank. Service lasted eight years, but at 22, having devoured the adventure tales of such writers as Jules Verne and R.M. Ballantyne and the rollicking poems of Burns, Bret Harte and Edgar Allen Poe, Service quit the bank to go adventuring.
He sailed to Canada and splurged on a train ride to the west coast. He worked on a farm on Vancouver Island, in the Cowichan Valley. Then he headed south. Robert Service is all narrative, remember? He worked in a mine south of San Francisco and lived among the derelicts of Los Angeles, then toiled as a fruit picker before landing a job as a handyman and tutor in a high-class brothel, where he started playing the guitar. With $30 in his pocket and a guitar on his back, he went south to San Diego and then on into Mexico, where often he traded songs for his supper.
Heading back north, he took low-level jobs while making his way around Arizona, Nevada and Colorado. Along the way, he survived several close calls: once he got caught in quicksand, and another time, while crossing mountains in the Mojave Desert, he got trapped on a long trestle bridge by an expected train, and survived only by sacrificing his guitar and crawling out onto a jutting tie.
Service made his way back to Vancouver Island, where he ran a country store. He fell in love, quit his job to study for university entrance exams and sold a poem to a New York magazine for the princely sum of $5. With $200, he moved to Vancouver—but soon, undone by a tumultuous courtship, at 29 years old, he flunked out of university. Later he would write that he “had tried to storm the citadel of decent society, and been thrown into the ditch … I tasted the dregs of defeat and felt cast into the outer darkness.”
Now Service landed a job that changed his life—a job with the Bank of Commerce. After completing his apprenticeship in Victoria, he worked briefly in Kamloops, British Columbia. And in 1904, having heard dramatic stories of the still-recent Klondike Gold Rush and dreaming of doing for the frontier-north what Harte had done for pioneer-California, he accepted a transfer to the Yukon.
Service worked first in Whitehorse, a town of 800, where he organized theatrical performances. Within a period of about a month, he wrote both Sam McGee and Dan McGrew. He included them in a poetry collection, Songs of a Sourdough, that he sought to self-publish in Toronto, sending off the manuscript by mail. Advance orders proved so strong that the publisher offered a contract with royalties. Sourdough would sell more than 3 million copies, making it probably the best-selling poetry book of the 20th century.
But in 1908, still with the bank, Service moved to Dawson City. Then he quit, moved into the log cabin on Eighth Street and devoted himself to writing (and adventuring) full time. He would write novels and poetry collections and volumes of autobiography—in all, more than 30 books. He would see front-line action during World War I, and marry a Parisian woman and move to France. And he would father twins and see one of the girls die as a child. He would sell three books to Hollywood, and appear in a cameo with Marlene Dietrich, and sail off to Tahiti to gather material.
But the bedrock of his writing career, and the cornerstone of his life, would forever remain the eight years he lived in the Yukon, four of which he spent in the cabin opposite Berton House. And now, thanks to this biography, I yearn to see it again.
Every once in a while, the author takes her focus off Service and tells us more than we want or need to know about some secondary figure. The real-life Sam McGee, for example, who contributed nothing to Service but his name, gets several pages when he deserves a dozen lines. Still, Mallory has delivered an accessible, fast-paced work that merits a broad audience. Mostly she stays with the narrative, scarcely nodding in the direction of critical biography. Was Robert Service a poet or a versifier? Anybody who reads this book will know how to answer that question. He was Canada’s Robbie Burns—and he has yet to be celebrated as such.
Ken McGoogan, who has written extensively on the fur trade and Arctic exploration, recently published Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation.