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Book Review: Mackenzie Breakup

Reviewed by Murray Lundberg

     The Canol Pipeline - why have so few people ever heard of this World War II project that rivaled the Alaska Highway in size, and probably surpassed it as a bold attempt to step into the future? Probably the fact that it was ultimately a failure has made both the Canadian and American governments reluctant to admit that they had anything to do with it. Given that assumption, though, it still suprises me that the Canol hasn't caught the public's fancy. Jean Kadmon's exciting new book may help to change that.

     I have to preface this review by explaining that I published the book for Jean - having stated that, explaining why I got involved may help to understand something about the dozens of "cottage publishers" who are operating from basement offices and dining room tables in all corners of the Yukon and Alaska, making some truly unique material available to the public.

     In the summer of 1995, I was running a tour bus on routes throughout the North. One evening while overnighting at Beaver Creek, on the Yukon/Alaska border, I was re-moisturizing my voice box in the lounge of the Westmark Hotel when the bartender, a friend from Whitehorse, told me that there was a woman at the bar that I had to meet. To make a long story short, that woman was Jean Kadmon, a poet/writer/visual artist from Jerusalem who was back in the North visiting some of the places she had first seen while working on the Canol Project as a clerk-typist in 1943. She was surprised that I had even heard of the Canol, and even more surprised that I was extremely interested in her experiences.

     Jean was living in Edmonton, Alberta in 1943, fresh out of the University of Alberta, when the opportunity came to work for the U.S. Army Engineering Department at Camp Canol, a large camp that was being built on the Mackenzie River as one of the primary bases for the construction of a pipeline intended to supply oil to military bases in Alaska. From the moment the C-47 left Edmonton, taking her to a part of the North that she had only read about, Jean was a keen observer of her new surroundings, and she became an active writer of letters to friends and family members. Over the past 20 years she had written an historical novel based on her recollections, her collection of newsletters and other mementos from Camp Canol and Norman Wells, and on the very descriptive letters that she had written (and kept copies of).

     In 1995, Jean was looking for a publisher for her novel, and I offered to help by passing the word. When she returned home, she sent me a copy of the manuscript - I virtually never read fiction, but this was so unique that I read it not once, but twice. I offered some suggestions to Jean for small changes, and over the next 16 months those suggestions turned into a full-scale edit. By then I was so convinced of the historical value of the project that I offered to publish 100 copies of the book myself.

     The primary documents for researching the Canol are generally dry military reports - until the release of Mackenzie Breakup, nothing had been published about the people who made the project possible, and whose lives seem to have been forever changed by the experience, as surely as were the stampeders of the Klondike rush. The protagonist in the story is Dian Flanners, a young clerk-typist who is one of the handful of women dropped in among thousands of men at Camp Canol. The women are the main focus of the book - their backgrounds, their reasons for going to the Canol, their hopes for the future, their reactions to the wildness of the experience as a whole, and of course their relations with the men. As such it is a valuable social history - to my knowledge, there is no comparable study of women's part in the war effort in the North. That isn't to say, however, that it is a social history of the Canol - it's written from the point of view of a white Alberta city girl. The black labour regiments and the local inhabitants are primarily mentioned to provide background. The locals didn't leave Dian unaffected, though:

The aurora was bright enough to let us see each other and, when we looked across a small clearing, the Indian tents. The tents were next to spruce whose tops seemed to reach into the moving, snaking curtains of light. We crept closer and then realized that the Indians were asleep; only one dim lantern burned in one of the tents. "We'd better go back to the oil camp before the dogs sniff us," my friend whispered, but our eyes were caught by movement. A silhouette of a woman showed on the lit canvas wall. She walked back and forth, singing to a child in her arms. It was so quiet that her gentle song reached us too.

     The characters that bring Mackenzie Breakup to life are as diverse as their prototypes. The locations, and the timeline and political wrangling of the real Canol Project are accurate, and described with a level of detail that nicely blurs the line between fact and fiction, an accomplishment that was probably made easier by Jean's background in sociology and anthropology. I thoroughly enjoyed joining Dian and her friends on a tour of the pipeline as construction progressed south towards Whitehorse, joining in on the parties and dances, and seeing the cancellation of the Project through the workers' eyes. Seeing photographs of Canol facilities and personnel now, I find myself trying to figure out who geology assistant Theodore Miller, Thelma the matron, or Captain Coby were modeled after, and which Quonset hut Dian would have lived in.

     Digital printing technology has made possible projects that would have been financially unreasonable only 5 years ago. While only 100 copies of Mackenzie Breakup were printed, that still makes it possible for several times that number of people to experience one of the North's last great adventures. A lengthy extract is on-line.


Mackenzie BreakupCover
by Jean Kadmon
ISBN 0-9681672-1-7
Published February 1997
5.5" x 8.5", 252 pages
$22.50 Canadian

Distributed by:
     Pathfinder Publications
     P.O. Box 185,
     Carcross, YT   Y0B 1B0