Our relationship with gold goes back thousands of years, said Michael Maser of Gibsons — and it's not always a pretty one.
Lust and deception are often involved.
A main character in Maser's first novel, Gold Mad (published by MW Books), is the epitome of the rascals who threw their lives into their search for gold nuggets. Pat Parrot is a gold prospector with no redeeming qualities.
"He's an anti-hero," agrees Maser.
As unsavoury as he is, he's probably close to the truth of at least some of the 100,000 people who raced to the Yukon after the discovery of gold in 1896, as described in Gold Mad. Men left their homes, often in far away lands, and journeyed by ship to Alaska where they were subject to severe weather and cruel hardships. Many starved to death before finding gold.
Maser understands this obsession deeply; when he graduated with a degree in geology, he went north himself and to the mountains of California. He was thrilled with the job at first and even found some gold. Later, he began to see how the larger mines were destroying the rivers. He developed an environmental sensibility, chose a new career in journalism and finally became an educator on the Sunshine Coast. (A previous book by Maser, Learn Your Way! Self Designing the Life You Really Want, is aimed at students and teachers.)
During the course of his prospecting in the Yukon, Maser decided to research the life of his great-grandfather, Alexander Lyon, who had reportedly abandoned his son in Scotland to join the gold rush. To his astonishment, he found that Lyon never made it as far as the gold fields. He ended up in Port Hardy, on northern Vancouver Island, where he married into an Aboriginal family and became a trader of hardware.
This story is not unusual — many of those who made money from the gold rush made it by selling equipment or by transporting prospectors, not by finding nuggets. Women also left the safety of homes and brothels to travel north to provide services to the miners. All of this colourful background is to be found in Maser's book.
It's rich in characters — from the San Francisco newspaper publisher who recognized how gold makes a good story, to the scientist Isaac Fayne, whose lust for prestige by studying the Native people overcame his respect for their culture. The last third of the book follows the story of Parrot and Fayne, who are thrown together in an unusual situation — each with his own obsessions.
Maser points out that we are still rushing to find gold — and we are still lying about it. Consider the Bre-X scandal of 1996 in which mining companies were salting the land with gold in order to attract investors. It's a hard truth that we are still manipulated by the lure of gold.
An alert for readers: the language used in the book is authentic to the times. People of colour including Chinese and First Nations were called by epithets we would not use today.
"It's not politically correct, but my goal was to tell a story,” Maser said.
Gold Mad is available at Coast bookstores or from a link on Maser's website at http://goldmad.ca.