The Floor of Heaven: A True Saga of the Old West and the Yukon Gold Rush
- Howard Blum
- 426 pp.
An epic look at frontier Alaska, through the lives of three of its colorful characters.
Few stories have gripped the popular imagination as enduringly as tales of the Old West. In the second half of the 19th century, Americans filled a boundless storehouse with larger-than-life characters and fables — both cautionary and inspiring — a feat all the more amazing because their durability belies the brevity of their moment. Just as the clipper’s romantic career was cut short by the advent of steam but remains imperishable in the chronicles of sail, the cowboy and gunslinger and saloon girl had only a few years allotted to them before barbed wire hemmed the horizon and railroads freighted in the constraints of civilization.
Yet they live. The vanishing of the Old West turned out to be just as colorful as its prime, whether played out by the Daltons in the streets of Coffeeville, or Hickok drawing aces ‘n eights in Deadwood, or the James and Younger boys riding into Northfield. Popular culture stood up and took notice, first through Owen Wister and Theodore Roosevelt, and then scores of lesser writers who tilled the field for Hoot Gibson and gimlet-eyed William S. Hart filming their simple “oaters.” Duke Wayne defined a genre. Alan Ladd rode quite literally into the sunset as young Brandon de Wilde plaintively shouted, “Shane! Shane!” Every incarnation of this world is shot through with the impression that it is rapidly passing away, disappearing before the ruthless march of progress. The Pinkertons take the fun out of train robbing. Butch and Sundance decamp for Bolivia.
They should have gone to Alaska. As Howard Blum shows, the climate was worse, but the pickings were better and the long arm of the law often found its reach exceeding its grasp — or what’s a floor of Heaven for? The story of the Alaskan gold rush is really the story of Old West archetypes fleeing their disappearing world to fetch up where elements might be unforgiving and the chances of survival could be worse than slim. But at least you could fight those elements and take those chances on your own terms.
Much of the cast of what was actually the greatest show on earth decamped for the Klondike or its environs. Some found gold, others preyed on them, with resolute lawmen gradually trying to sort it out. Plump, game gals opened sporting houses; grizzled “sourdoughs” (prospectors) disappeared into the craggy wilderness for months or even years; towns popped up around gold-refining operations or gold-transporting hubs; pickpockets lurked in the shadows; hustlers ran short and long cons. It could have been Dodge or Denver in their raw heydays, Bat Masterson (or someone like him) heaving beer mugs at barroom brawlers, William Bonney (or someone like him) oversleeping and getting gunned down for the trouble. Everybody was living another chapter in the annals of the Old West, far-north edition.
Blum paints it all with a magisterial sweep to capture its vitality and naked energy. Yet the trick to telling this sort of story is to steer clear of generalizations that bleach out its epic hues. As in any good yarn, characters drive the plot rather than the other way around, and Blum achieves that with aplomb. He tells about the Yukon gold rush through the exploits and adventures of three main characters: Charlie Siringo, Jefferson R. Smith and George Washington Carmack. They’re supported by a cast of square-jawed sidekicks, long-suffering women, plug-uglies, and bit players sporting quirky nicknames. The back stories for the three main figures form the backbone of the book and establish them as individuals representing types.
Siringo is the cowhand who plumb runs out of cattle drives and tries to settle down, but grows bored and finally escapes tedium by becoming a Pinkerton man. Smith is the drifter whose days as a small-time carney are an apprenticeship for darker arts on ever-larger scales; he picks up the sobriquet “Soapy” along the way for conning gullible marks into paying tens of dollars for nickel bars of soap. Carmack is the ineffable mystery — to his companions, to us, sometimes to himself. He moves through life as a series of lives, each oddly disconnected from the other: naïve California farm boy unlucky in love and off to join the Marines; AWOL fugitive on the lam and taken in by Alaskan Indians; wandering sourdough always looking over his shoulder for the military provost, until one day he looks down into a pan of sand and clear water from an icy creek and sees something that almost stops his heart.
Blum traces the winding roads that took these three men to Alaska in a series of coincidences that feel fated. Those roads ultimately intersect in the most unexpected ways. Charley Siringo is on an undercover assignment, Soapy Smith is building a criminal empire, and George Carmack is trying to make himself scarce. Blum casts the story in dramatic arcs that are often suspended at the close of chapters, perhaps as homage to the dime novels of the period. It is a device that beckons readers to turn the page by making them ask the question crucial to the best storytelling: “What happens next?”
It would be a disservice to the author and his audience to provide too much detail about his narrative and risk spoiling its charming fund of surprises. Suffice to say that Blum has taken care to corroborate and verify the accounts of people who routinely treated the tall tale as everyday coin, though he freely concedes that he never intended to write a scholarly treatise laden with footnotes and belabored interpretations. Rather, he provides just enough historical background to make the context of the events sensible, even if it stretches matters a bit to have a phrenologist’s novelty act treated as uncanny prophecy, or to soft-soap Soapy Smith’s perfidy with the occasional aside that he loved his wife (never more so, we might note, than from afar), or to avoid leaden exposition by making dates occasionally sparse in the text or cryptically year-less. Blum also employs some lingo common to the past but jarring to modern ears, as when he refers to Indian women as “squaws.”
Yet these are minor flaws in an otherwise sterling example of the narrative art. Blum’s story is informed by a wide array of sources and enlivened by a healthy historical imagination. He vividly portrays a fascinating cohort of characters as they are bowing out of their time and place, often with a bang. Mr. Blum himself deserves to take a bow.
David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler are the authors of Henry Clay: The Essential American (Random House, 2010). Their web page is www://djheidler.com.