Genre: Travel Fiction
Main characters: Summy Skim, Ben Raddle, Jane Edgerton
Time and place: 1898-1899, Canada (mostly Klondike)
First sentence: “On March 16, in the antepenultimate year of this century, the letter carrier whose route included Jacques Cartier Street in Montreal delivered a letter addressed to Mr. Summy Skim, at house number 29.”
Summary: Summy Skim and Ben Raddle are two cousins living in Montreal. When they find themselves, out of the blue, the owners of a claim in Klondike, the adventurous side of Ben takes over. He manages to convince Summy, and the two of them travel together to the place where Ben hopes he will become a rich man. But the river floods their patch of ground and everything seems hopeless… until one day when they rescue a man that, with his dying breath, left them instructions to reach a place where a volcano filled with gold was to be found.
This is my third time reading this book (I’ve read it twice as a child). I have come to it with a bunch of expectations, given that I already knew I was going to like it, because, of course, I had already read it. Twice. Well, as it happens when it comes to expectations, I was wrong. I simply couldn’t believe this was a book I have actually liked. Everything seemed cardboard-like, the situations, the characters, everything. So disappointing.
Summy Skim for example. He loves quiet life (so mostly he complains about wanting to go home), but he also has feelings for one of the girls (so wherever she goes he goes too). Loves hunting, he’s a good shot, that’s about it. Nothing deeper than that. Edith is simply gentle and good at keeping everything in order. Ben Raddle is an engineer who wants adventure, and Jane is almost his female counterpart (just as adventurous yet shallow as he is, with a dash of feminism blended in). As for the antagonists, they felt more like literary devices than fully fledged characters, as they are two vicious people with no background and no qualities at all.
Mr. Verne is mostly famous for his “Extraordinary Voyages” series, and I believe this book is one of those. The characters are uprooted from their familiar environment (Montreal), and brought at the (almost literal) end of the world. Some say Mr. Verne’s descriptions of travelling in cold weather are very well-done, making one feel like he/she were actually there. Unfortunately all I can say about it is that even those parts seemed bi-dimensional to me.
As a bit of trivia, I have read this book in my native lanaguage (Romanian), and, while I own two separate translations, both of them have the same opening sentence, which differs from the one in the English version in two places: the date in the English version is March 16, when in my versions it’s March 17; the century is “this” instead of “the previous” one. I have checked Google books and found a copy of the original French book, and it was the same as the English one. However, the fact that I have two translations I think implies the fact that somewhere out there there’s also a French text with March 17 instead of March 16 — but why would that be? At least the case is a bit more obvious when it comes to the century issue, since the book was released in 1906, if I remember correctly (post-1905, anyway), so “the previous century” is by far the correct version, rather than “this”. But why is there a French version of the book with “this century”, when it all happens in 1800s, but the book was published not in that century but the next?
After a bit of digging I have found out the explanation for the century dilemma (but not for the date change, which is what has intrigued me the most). The version published in 1906 was a post-mortem one, heavily edited by the author’s son. I already knew that, but what I did not know is that the original version of the text, originally finished in 1899 (the same century as the events in the book), was also published in 1989 (yup, 90 years after). I have first read this book, in its Romanian translation, with March 17, far before 1989, which means that my copy is a translation of the initial version, the edited one (waaaah!), while the English version is straight after Jules Verne’s.
The differences between the original version and Michel Verne’s are very important (hence my adding Michel as a co-author): show spoiler
So many things I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t searched for the first sentence of the book in English :P
Thoughts on the ending: Predictable and somewhat unlikely, but nice :) show spoiler
What I liked most: It was interesting to find out about the meridian marking the border between Canada and Alaska, and a bit of what the search for gold entails — about rockers (a cradle-like piece of equipment that could be rocked like a cradle to sift sands through screens) and sluice boxes (sluices that have transverse riffles over a carpet which trap the heavy minerals) for example. I knew a bit about them before but I had no interest in them before (not that I have any grand interest now but I did spend about an hour clicking around Wikipedia in search of information regarding gold mining back then :) ).
What I liked least: The character that annoyed me the most was Naluto, a guy who never gave a decided opinion on anything. His answers to questions were something like “It’s [something]… unless it’s not” and “There are probably twenty miles ’til there… or more… or perhaps less”. Each and every time he talked like this and it became mightily bothersome after a while. To think that this is a character written in by Michel especially for comic effect! Ugh.
Recommend it to? I didn’t much like this book so I do not particularly recommend it to anyone.
Also written by Jules Verne
(The Extraordinary Adventures of) Foundling Mick