I have a lifelong relationship with Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. It was one of my mother’s favourite bedtime stories because it was short. I most often requested a book called The Golden Eagle: It was fascinating, beautifully illustrated, and it took about forty-five minutes to get through. When my mother didn’t want to commit that kind of time to putting my sister and I to bed, though, she could always get me to agree to a reading of this poem.
I remember it was the first time I ever heard of Tennessee, and so my mother would have to explain it was someplace very warm –though not tropical– many hours’ drive to the south of our quiet street in Toronto. Then she would have to explain that the Dawson Trail was on the far side of Canada from where I lay, tucked in under my covers. It was desperately cold there, but more than eighty years ago thousands of people came from all over the world to search for gold.
This poem was my introduction to the idea of cremation. It was my first ghost story. It was the first time I heard of dog sleds, or ships trapped in the ice and abandoned. It might even have been the first story I ever heard where someone died.
I can think of many times this poem and I have crossed paths. When I was in grade five or six they would send me down to the grade one and two classroom to help the younger students with their reading assignments. The Cremation of Sam McGee was in their story books, and I remember reading it many times aloud to them, explaining what was happening along the way, just as my mother had for me. A story is always better with the context, I find.
Years later I remember a woman I was dating spotting a copy of it on my bookshelf and saying she knew the whole thing by heart. I was so pleased with this declaration that I asked her to recite it, and there followed one of the funniest and most awkward conversations I have ever had without being able to laugh aloud:
“There are strange things done… Um… Line?”
“In the midnight sun.”
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who… Uh… Line?”
“Moil? That can’t be right.”
“It’s like toil.”
“Okay… By the men who moil for gold. The arctic trails have seen strange tales… Shoot… Line?”
This went on for much longer than you would believe possible. She really thought she had it, because she had given a speech about it in school many years before. To be fair, I shouldn’t have put her on the spot like that. She didn’t want to give up, and she didn’t want me to let her off the hook. We never made it as far as Sam McGee’s death, and that’s the last I’ll say about that.
I have recently finished Pierre Berton’s excellent book, Klondike, but I was disappointed that Robert Service was only mentioned twice in passing, and never in the context of his poetry outside of the end notes for the revised edition. There were tantalizing mentions of Lake Lebarge and steamships trapped in the ice, of dog teams and many queer tales that did indeed make my blood run cold, but it turns out Service missed the gold rush itself, so Berton rightfully did not include much about the man or his work in his otherwise exhaustive and thorough record of the last great gold rush.
Anyway, the book set my mind to work once more upon the poem and its setting, so I’ve decided to put it up on the blog, along with a wonderful reading of it by the late but immortal Johnny Cash (although he does use the word toil instead of moil). Enjoy!