One of the joys of travel is finding things you’re never going to encounter at home. I spotted this book at a supermarket checkout while in Alaska, and I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have come across it anywhere else. I’ve read quite a few stories about the famous Alaskan gold rush, but this book offers a very unique perspective on the time and place, focusing, as the title suggests, on the women of the demimonde who flocked to the Far North’s gold camps in the late 1890s and early 20th century. It aims to shed light on the “off the record” history of the pioneers, and women who in their own ways influenced the frontier life.
What made these women leave civilization and brave a long dangerous journey into a harsh, unforgiving subarctic wilderness? According to the introduction, they rushed north pretty much for the same reasons men did. Because women couldn’t stake a claim or own a saloon, the only way to make a fortune was to mine the miners. In this strange remote world where men vastly outnumbered women, this gave rise to an underclass of prostitutes, dance hall girls and actresses who became the centre of the social life, and were later tolerated by the polite society as the “necessary evil”. While many women did make a success out of their venture, it’s not really the reason to see prostitution in a romanticised light – rather it indicates the scarcity of economic and social opportunities for the women left on their own. When your choices are meager wages paid for long hours of mind-numbing work, or a loveless marriage, the prospect of making money as a prostitute or a vaudeville performer can look pretty inviting.
While I enjoyed the book overall, I thought it often struggled to strike the right balance between a dry research paper and an accessible read for the general audience. It’s arranged in a vaguely chronological order, starting with the early Klondike Gold Rush and ending with the closure of the red light district in Fairbanks in the 1950s. While the chapters are written with a specific focus in mind, they often meander, turning into little more than a list of incidents, dates and names. Historical non-fiction can often be on the dry side, but generally there’s more logical progression from paragraph to paragraph.
The book is at its best and most compelling when it concentrates on the in-depth profiles of the individual women, recounting their stories of success and hardships with sympathy and warmth. There are many interesting, tragic and colourful characters found: Klondike Kate Rockwell, a dancer and vaudeville star with a flair for choreography; Ellen Callahan, a Native Alaskan who stood up to her abusive husband and became a successful independent businesswoman. The most eccentric story in the book actually belongs to a man named Richard Geoghegan, a brilliant linguist who mastered more than one hundred languages. His badly deformed leg excluded him from the normal life, and led him to seek physical and emotional solace in Far North’s demimonde. He married a black prostitute, a double whammy offence in the eyes of the polite society, and the couple stayed together for twenty years, living in separate quarters and with Geoghan’s wife continuing her trade.
What really brings the book to life is a wonderful and generous selection of black-and-white photographs accompanying every chapter, from the posed glamour shots to the images of society events and snaps of everyday life on the frontier. There’s a striking shot of a group of women wearing huge puffy trousers on their way to the mining camp, in an era when no lady wore trousers. Another curiosity is a photographic resume showcasing a range of facial expressions, kinda like a modern photo booth, which was required to find employment in vaudeville. Some other photographs would be considered shockingly indecent by the standards of the day, when ladies weren’t even allowed to expose their ankles. It’s also always fascinating to see how much the notions of female beauty change through the times – most of today’s stars would be considered way too skinny in an era that admired a curvy female shape.