Monday, November 26, 2007

Starting Out by Pierre Berton - Book Review

Starting Out (1920 - 1947)
Author: Pierre Berton (1920 - 2004)
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart, Toronto 1987

When I moved to Canada 7 years ago, I didnt really know anything about Pierre Berton. But I had read one of his books - Klondike. Then I discovered that Pierre was born in the Yukon and lived there during the early depression era. His father had been a gold rush miner originally from New Brunswick. So when I found this book recently, I snapped it up.

This is the story of Pierre Berton from his early childhood in Dawson City, Yukon, through his high school years in Vancouver and in college at UBC to being in the Army during World War 2. Pierre was actually born in 1920 in Whitehorse, Yukon, but the family moved back to Dawson City in 1921. At that time, Whitehorse had a population of 300, and Dawson City was 12,000. Today Whitehorse has 24,000 and Dawson has 1800. Dawson is now a Historic place because it is a genuine gold rush town. It receives 60,000 tourists every year.

Berton remembers riding his bicycle along wooden sidewalks past old saloons, dancehalls, brothels, theatres and hotels, most of which were old, decaying, and boarded up. He describes the Victorian architecture, the luxurious but dusty interiors, and mining machinery strewn everywhere, both inside the old buildings, and outside lying along the streets.

In winter Berton describes going to school in the dark, coming home in the dark,
indeed, not even seeing the sun for 6 weeks during December & January. He saw the
northern lights regularly and never thought anything of them. In the middle of summer "nothing was really dark in Dawson during that brief six week period when the sun set for less than 2 hours".

This is the Bertons childhood home located at 8th Avenue & Harper in Dawson. It was a small one bedroom house with no bathroom. It is now a historic site and used for a "writers in residence" program.

In all my years in the Yukon, I never saw a wolf. I saw moose, caribou, brown bears, lynx, coyotes and all manner of wildlife from arctic hares to porcupine, but never a wolf. The howl of the wolf was heard frequently.

Berton moved to Victoria in 1931 during the depression when his father lost his job.
He describes his high school years in Victoria, during which time he discovered his
love of writing, and endeavoured to become a journalist. This he did while being on
the staff of the Ubyssey at UBC in Vancouver. After he graduated from UBC, Berton
got a job on the Vancouver News-Herald where he eventually rose to the position of
City editor by the time he was twenty one years old. Then in 1942 Berton joined the
army, and spent 3 years being trained for all manner of things such as infantry,
intelligence, officer school and so on.

But he never actually got to see any action. Then closest he got to it was in
England. When he was finally mustered out, he married his wife Janet and tried to
get his old city editor job back at the News-Herald. They refused to give it to him,
paying him a paltry sum to be just a reporter. So Berton joined the Vancouver Sun
Newspaper. But something in him was still restless, and a year after he married, he
accepted an offer to work for Macleans Magazine in Toronto.

So in 1947, he and Janet packed up and moved to Toronto. The next book covers his years in Toronto. It's called My Times (1947 - 1995) and I will be reading & reviewing it soon. Naturally of course, this book is read for the Canadian Challenge.

I could go on and on, but I LOVED this biography, for all the details it gave me about the Yukon. Now I realise this all took place well over 70 years ago, but still. I have never been to the Yukon. I have never seen the northern lights. Now I have a dream to go there and see the northern lights in my life time. I better get cracking, I have less than 40 years to do it in (and that is assuming I live for 80 years).

1 comment:

John Mutford said...

I've not yet been to the Yukon either (it and Saskatchewan are my sole Canadian holdouts).

Sounds like a great autobiography. Though I love his tales about the lives of others, so I'm not surprised that his own life would also prove fascinating. Interesting about the wolves. I've heard people who grew up in Nunavut say the same thing about polar bears- one man told me that the first one he saw was at the zoo in Toronto.