November 18, 2009
Sunlight pours down on an old and young town after a snowfall. Winter boots squeak across sidewalks. Walking out of the Dawson City post office, and around the corner, I encounter a young man on skis zooming through the intersection of Third Avenue and King. Two strong dogs in harness are doing all the work, pulling him forward at top speed.
Five minutes later I cross Front Street and climb over a snowbank to walk along the dike beside the Yukon River. Up ahead six dogs in harness are waiting for their owner in the snow, yapping and howling a greeting as I approach.
Well, hello. I wasn’t expecting you.
Before I came to Dawson City, in that know-nothing time when I defined Edmonton as a northern city, I’d heard vaguely about the Yukon Quest, the annual dogsled race over mountain passes and along the Yukon River between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse. I’d read about dogsled excursions for tourists in the Yukon guidebooks, and I assumed . . .
I don’t know what I assumed exactly, but it was mostly wrong.
I caught a glimpse of something different in Joanne Bell’s first book, Breaking Trail, a novel I took home from the library shortly after I arrived here. The story is about a girl who travels with her own dog team to a log cabin deep in the Yukon mountains. While she is frustrated with her own awkwardness, southern readers will be astonished at her competence and comfort in the wilderness. As soon I read the story, I knew I wanted to meet its author.
About a week ago Joanne Bell launched her second novel, Juggling Fire, with a big party at the Dawson City Community Library. The story takes place in the same wild territory, but the book is for older readers. A troubled young woman hikes into the mountains to search for the truth about her father’s mysterious disappearance. Her only companion is Brooks, “a half bloodhound and half malamute/Newfoundland cross.” They save one another’s lives more than once, and in different ways. It’s a great read on a cold, winter evening.
After Joanne finished her reading at the library, an older man in the audience stood up to thank her for getting every word just right. “A lot of us have the same experiences around here, and we feel the same way about the land, but we can’t express it in words the way you do,” he said. Other people smiled and nodded.
A few days later I asked Joanne to meet me for a coffee at the Tasty Byte Internet Café. “It will have to be on Friday because we’re going out to the bush,” she said. She told me she spends as much time as possible at a cabin in the mountains above Dawson, about 30 kilometres off the Dempster Highway. Born in Britain, Joanne grew up in New Brunswick, Alberta and British Columbia, before moving north to the Yukon to stay. She’s lived here for decades now, hiking, canoeing, and yes, running dog teams with her family. She works as a naturalist in the summer, and a substitute teacher in Dawson in the winter, and somehow she has also found time to earn an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. After Christmas she plans a long hike in Ecuador but she’ll return in six weeks to the mountains and the dogs she loves best. Meanwhile her fine new novel will travel, too, from its origins around a campfire in the Yukon, through its publisher Orca Books in Vancouver, to Czech readers on the other side of the world in translation.
Joanne’s writing is a quiet answer to the more famous books of another century that mythologized the Canadian north for an eager international audience. Many of the authors lived here briefly, if at all, and described the land and its people with a poetic licence that can take the breath away. Distant readers accepted the stories with pleasure, and on faith, and rarely travelled north to compare fiction to fact.
And readers here? How did they feel about those books? In a recent re-examination of Farley Mowat’s writing in Up Here magazine, Tim Querengesser describes a certain local resentment. “The North has long condemned its successful writers as phonies,” he writes. “Perhaps because they spent so little time here compared to the status they gained from it, many northerners have grudges against the heavyweights—Robert Service, Jack London and even Dawson native Pierre Berton. Though they’re held in reverence elsewhere, the North assigns them an asterisk.”
I’m not sure the North speaks with a single voice, or a capital N, but I see his point. In 2009 Joanne can live and write in a log cabin up in the mountains, a rugged place without electricity or running water, while she publishes her work outside the territory, and maps her next trip to South America. She knows her readers in the Czech Republic are as likely to trek through the Ogilvie Mountains or Kluane National Park as they are to explore the Himalayas, Mount Kenya or Machu Picchu. Even if readers can’t travel north, they can peek into almost every corner of the Yukon with their fingertips on a laptop keyboard, and perhaps even find Joanne’s home mountain range in a satellite image. They crave authenticity and they know where to find it.
The older man in the library told Joanne that she got the sound of the wind just right. When I met the dog teams in her books, I understood their place in the contemporary Yukon, right out there in the snow between Front Street and the dike, or out in the bush on a Saturday morning.
No matter how hard we try, southern writers will fumble and drop the spruce torches that a young Yukoner tosses to the sky with exuberance in Juggling Fire. Joanne Bell imagines the north, too, but she lives its truth. Lucky woman.