‘Floor of Heaven’ strikes gold with its true tale
“The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush” (Crown), by Howard Blum
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
With the West giving way to civilization, tough old birds who disdained progress and younger roosters longing for a frontier of their own looked north. Way, way north.
Alaska and the Yukon offered all comers a chance for adventure, riches and a cold, lonely death. “The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush” relies on diaries and memoirs in revisiting one of the final chapters of American history in which firearms had to back up grit and determination.
Nature, not to mention the avarice of others, was a formidable opponent for prospectors in the late 1800s. Setting out to discover gold could mean carrying hundreds of pounds of supplies, literally crawling up steep ranges, building boats in the wilderness and praying that winter would neither come too early nor stay too late.
In narrative nonfiction, casting is everything. Author Howard Blum burdens his real-life characters with packs of facts essential for bringing significance to his subject. They carry their loads well, thanks to Blum’s fine sense of storytelling.
Among the principals is George Carmack, a California sheepherder and Marine Corps deserter who found a new life among Tagish Indians. Yet he could not shake the belief that he could still strike it big if he just kept trying.
Missing the adventure that came on cattle drives from Texas to Kansas, Charlie Siringo left his thriving ice cream and oysters shop to become a top undercover operative with the Pinkerton detective agency. He set off for Alaska to figure out who was stealing from a gold mine — and to distance himself from a personal tragedy.
Then there’s Jeff Smith, nicknamed “Soapy” for having sold nickel bars of soap with the phony promise that a $100 bill might be inside the wrapper. He, too, went north, but with the goal of fleecing prospectors of their hard-earned gold rather than dishing for his own.
Dramatic and colorful with touches of humor and poignancy, “The Floor of Heaven” has the spark of a television miniseries and the depth of a novel. That Blum’s tale of adventure is tall but true makes it all the more enjoyable, particularly because its heartbeat is so keenly American.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).