I decided I ought to go ahead and wrap up my Kroetsch reviews. His final novel was called The Man From the Creeks. It becomes immediately apparent that the novel is designed to lead up to the shoot-out in the Malamute Saloon portrayed in Robert Service's poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew (text of poem here). In fact, the narrator is well aware of the poem, but he was present at the shoot-out and notes that the poet (or scribbler as I think he calls Service at one point) came along several years after. Not surprisingly, he says a few of the details were wrong. Kroetsch occasionally has to tie himself almost in knots to get some of the details portrayed in the poem to come to pass. For all that, there is still a fair bit of playfulness present in a book with such a preordained and fatal outcome. I occasionally found myself thinking of Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, as well as Chaplin's The Gold Rush.
In a nutshell, the narrator is the son of "the lady that's known as Lou." Lou and the boy decide to escape their lives running a pawn shop in Seattle and to try their hands at prospecting at the height of the Gold Rush. They sneak aboard a boat heading up north but are discovered. A man buys their release with two barrels of whiskey he's bringing north. This man, Benjamin, hasn't brought any proper prospecting equipment at all, only whiskey, though this is nearly worth its weight in gold. In any case, they set out as an unlikely trio, none of them with any real sense of what they are getting themselves into. While Lou tends to be the most level-headed, she makes many critical mistakes along the way. It does strain belief that they actually make it north in one piece. Benjamin saved Dan McGrew's life (hiding him in a huge barrel) and has been told that if he makes it up north, he'll be cut in on the action.
They are also supposed to bring another woman (Sal or perhaps Lil?) who used to be a dancer but now runs a hardware store. The boy starts working for her and falls under her spell. As spring comes and the ice melts (to allow the Gold Rush to continue), she rather wisely decides to go back to the States with her earnings and to not go on to meet up with Mr. McGrew. It falls to the boy to break the news to McGrew. McGrew puts Benjamin to work, working a terrible claim, and the stress more or less sends him around the bend, though indeed he does strike goal near the very end of the book. Lou and the boy come work for McGrew in his saloon (and indeed the boy is "the rag-time kid" of the poem). The denouement does play itself out largely as laid out in the poem, with one critical difference, which I will not reveal. The boy ends up taking over McGrew's saloon (perhaps a bit unlikely), living to 100 (which is mentioned throughout the book) and never fully getting over his puppy love for McGrew's lady-love (Sal or Lil). Am I being too harsh in having trouble believing that someone in such a challenging climate would remain in this state of arrested development for over 80 years? After surviving some truly terrible conditions, he would just sit and regress for this length of time? I suppose there are people that do fall into that category, but I just thought it was unnecessarily cruel on Kroetsch's part to leave the kid in such a state when it didn't really add anything to the overall story arc. It's almost as if he was thinking about a kid killed off in another one of his novels and says, see, given the kind of person he was, he didn't really miss all that much... Maybe I am just reading too much into this, but I wish he had chosen a different approach for handling Lou's son and the aftermath of the shooting.