A Review by Elizabeth Hay
The Man from the Creeks by Robert Kroetsch
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hay
The Man from the Creeks is a gold story based on a dog-eared poem. In a stroke of playful genius, Kroetsch takes the figures in Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and brings them to life: Dangerous Dan, the lady known as Lou, and the man from the creeks. In the end, you have everything—tall tale, adventure, quest, history, romance, tragedy, poetry, music, sex. Everything you need to know about the Klondike Gold Rush and everything you could hope for in a story. You have everything, and the characters, as tends to happen in a gold story, have nothing.
How could I not have known about this great book? I heard about it ten years after it was published when I went to the Yukon last spring and was told twice: “Then you must read The Man from the Creeks.”
The narrator is Lou’s only son, Peek, a boy who loves his mother and an old man who recalls their story, one and the same. He is 114 years old with a perfect memory of himself at fourteen, caught up in circumstances bigger and wilder than any but he can understand. It’s a story that’s been saved up for a lifetime.
The characters are grandly human, all of them; the women even more vivid than the men. Lou is “tough and busty and wise,” and always a step ahead of the story. The lovely man from the creeks, Ben Redd, is always a step behind. In the opening pages, he comes to the rescue, saving castaways Lou and Peek from being thrown overboard on the boat to Skagway. Kroetsch employs that wily old narrative technique of jumping from the frypan into the fire into the drink, his characters negotiating hardship after hardship, as necessarily creative as Buster Keaton in getting out of one fix after another.
Action, yes. But the weight of the book is emotional. Lou and Ben find what they need in the beginning—each other—but they feel impelled to scheme forward. It turns out that harder than packing straight up the Chilkoot Pass in the dead of winter, harder than building a boat from nothing on the shores of Lake Bennett, harder than getting the 560 miles downriver to Dawson, is being honest with each other about themselves. And so Lou and Ben, “sparring and holding on to each other at the same time,” arrive in the gold fields and succumb to their own confusion and to Dangerous Dan McGrew, “handsome in a pale way, under his grey bowler.”
As do Lou and Peek, Dan McGrew owes his life to Ben, but he takes him to a worked-over claim on Eldorado Creek and dumps him there. With Ben, we go down the shaft, thawing the permafrost with fires, digging away the muck, winching it up to the surface, looking for the pay streak, tunnelling for the gold-bearing stream bed that disappeared fifteen thousand years ago. Deeper and more dangerous is Dangerous Dan, and deeper still are the mysteries of love. And so these two wonderful characters, Lou and the man from the creeks, made for each other and in love, lose each other to gold fever and to reticence. I hate them for it, when they could have been happy. I hate them for it and I love them to pieces.
The novel follows the poem, of course. “Two guns blazed in the dark . . . two men lay stiff and stark.” Everything darkens and intensifies and turns to grief.
The book is as much a poets’ as a lovers’ quarrel. Kroetsch gives Service credit for getting some things right—how the man from the creeks played the piano, for instance, clutching the keys “with his talon hands” and evoking “hunger not of the belly kind.” But he sets him straight about Lou. She didn’t pinch the stranger’s poke. She was too busy dying for love as “the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that’s known as Lou.”