Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book review: "Floor of Heaven" by Howard Blum

"The Floor of Heaven" is an enjoyable book full of adventure, danger and heartbreak in the lives of three men living and working on the U.S. frontier in the late 1800s. While I was bothered by the book's paucity of dates and I wonder about the veracity of some of the stories, it is nonetheless a compelling read.

Author Howard Blum captures the last period in American history when bold and self-reliant men could risk everything to seek fame and fortune on a lawless frontier. He smartly weaves together the stories of Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo, con-man Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, and sheep herder-turned-prospector George Carmack. The three men lived very different lives throughout the American West, but their paths eventually converged in Skagway, Alaska, after Carmack's discovery of gold  launched the Yukon Gold Rush.

Siringo, a Texas cowboy turned detective, goes undercover to catch a gang of criminals in Wyoming and gold thieves in Alaska. They're good stories, full of danger and tension, but it's clear that Blum depends largely on Siringo's version of events, and sometimes it just seems too smooth and slick. Siringo rarely makes a mistake, and always manages to cleverly outwit his criminal opponents. I found especially implausible the too-perfect conclusion to an attempted gold robbery in Skagway. Blum says in an afterword that he had to negotiate a "murky historical swamp" in writing the book and says he preferred to tell a fast-paced story rather than acknowledge conflicting versions of events that he found in his research.

Carmark's story is more melancholy than Siringo's. He deserts the Marines, then spends fruitless years searching for gold. He's a puzzle, alternately bold in his actions, then indecisive and dispirited. In Alaska, he joins an Alaskan Indian tribe, takes an Indian wife, but eventually returns to gold mining, when he hits his big discovery.

Smith is the book's bad seed, a sophisticated swindler and con man who cheated scores of people in Denver and other Western frontier towns before heading to Skagway to do it all again. If you've been to Skagway, as I have, you'll find Smith portrayed today as sort of a cartoonish bad guy, but the book makes it clear that he was a brutal and cold-hearted man who encouraged his goons to rob and steal, and who would murder anyone who stood in his way.

Frustratingly, Blum rarely includes dates in the story. If you enjoy reading history, dates help you place events in their historical context, but you'll find it very difficult to do so in this book. At first, the absence of dates seemed a minor annoyance, but 130 pages go by in the heart of the book with no clue as to when the events are taking place. Even key moments such as deaths don't include dates. It's often hard to tell how much time has passed, and in some cases you can't even tell whether it's winter or summer.

Finally, I should note that the full title of the book – "The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the American West and the Yukon Gold Rush" – gave me the impression that the book would be substantially about the gold rush. In fact, the gold rush only comes in 80 pages from the end of this 408-page book. So if you're looking for a history of the Yukon Gold Rush, this may not be the best book.


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