Drinking: Matin Parisien, Mariage Frères
I enjoyed this well-written biography of a woman who was a bit of an enigma – known, as many women are, through her husband and sensationalized news stories only. Using her novelist background, Deb Vanasse paints a realistic portrait of Kate Carmack and the Tlingit and Tagish people of Alaska and Canada.
In the preface, Vanasse admits that part of her motivation was to shed light on the life of a First Nations woman: “…her perspective – and indeed the perspective of all Native people – has been overlooked time and again in the plethora of books that have been written on the Klondike experience, popular accounts of the gold rush that emphasize the values and accomplishments of outsiders.” This could be said about any First Nations/American Indian culture. By bringing a new perspective to this period of history, Vanasse uncovers a strong woman who faced a changing world and navigated a strange culture despite the intersecting odds against her.
Kate Carmack (born Shaaw Tláa) witnessed the end of her people’s way of life and the Westernization of the region. George Carmack, her husband, allegedly discovered the gold that sparked the Klondike gold rush of the late 1800s. Before that, however, the two traveled, sometimes with Kate’s brother and nephew, all around the Yukon area searching for gold in various places. For more than 10 years, Kate followed George from mining camp to gold town, sewing mittens and coats to sell to miners, living far from her family as a second class citizen in an unfamiliar culture. Following George’s gold discovery, Kate was again thrust into unfamiliar territory as the family traveled to the United States, to Seattle and California. In the end, though, Kate gets a storybook ending: she moves back to her people’s land and lives there peacefully until her death, surrounded by family.
The primary weakness of the book is Vanasse’s tendency to romanticize First Nations life prior to and at the very beginning of Western contact. Life for the hunter-gatherer society may have been family oriented and predictable, but it was likely not any better than the life after Europeans and Americans came in with their diseases, but also food abundance and new tools. For the most part, however, the narrative of Kate’s life from her first marriage to her second husband’s search for gold all the way to his abandonment and denial of her once he was wealthy moves well, and the rich description of the landscape only enhances the story.