Martha Black:
Gold Rush Pioneer

by Carol Martin,
96 pages,
ISBN: 1550542451

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Children`s Books
by Janet McNaughton

Well-written children's books about Canadian women's history do not exactly abound. This is the second such title I've reviewed in about six months. Not enough to call a trend, but a good sign. That Martha Black is part of Canadian history at all is a fluke. She was born in Chicago in the 1860s, survived the famous fire as a five-year-old in 1871, and grew up with all the privileges of the nouveaux riches. At twenty-one, she married Will Purdy, a young railway executive from a wealthy family and tried to settle down. It didn't take. Ten years and two children later, Martha was not a happy woman. She and her husband decided to join the rush for the Klondike gold fields. Will Purdy got distracted and ended up in the Sandwich Islands, where he remained. Martha never saw him again. Before she and her brother finished their trek over Chilkoot pass, however, she knew she was pregnant with Will's third child. When the summer ended, it was no longer possible for Martha to leave the Yukon by way of that arduous trail. For the remainder of her long life, the Yukon was her home. She divorced, ran a sawmill, married a prominent lawyer who became a politician, and, during his illness, stood in for him to become the second woman elected to the federal Parliament of Canada. When her husband was well enough to resume his duties, she stepped aside.

Until this century, most women for whom we have detailed historical records came from privileged circumstances. Martha Black is no exception. One of the main challenges of writing history for children, whether fiction or non-fiction, is that the audience has absolutely no concept of the past. Detailed information about everyday life is vital to any successful history written for a young audience. Carol Martin does a very good job for the most part, drawing on archival photographs, line drawings, and sidebars to provide information about clothing, food, and the gold rush. She also deals frankly with the health and social problems created by the gold rush, and Martha's own non-conforming social life. My only criticism is that she sometimes forgets that few women had the advantages Martha Black could take for granted. For example, Martin writes that the only paid occupations open to women in the late nineteenth century were "nursing, teaching, or.secretarial jobs", when in fact the vast majority of female wage-earners were domestic servants, factory girls, seamstresses, or shop clerks. Martin's book would be a better history if the reader came away with a clear understanding of the degree to which Martha Black's life was untypical for women in her time. This quibble aside, Martha Black: Gold Rush Pioneer is a worthwhile addition to the small but growing body of titles that present the lives and times of real Canadian women to young readers.


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