Friday, January 17, 1997
A tale of love and adventure
By Jane Gaffin
on the northern frontier
Jean Kadmon's delightful northern novel, Mackenzie Breakup, is already a collector's item by virtue that only a few copies exist.
Kadmon, who has been revising the story off and on since 1950, re-visited the Yukon in 1995. By happenstance, she met Murray Lundberg, who at the time was driving a tour bus.
"She was looking for a publisher," explained Lundberg, an author and history enthusiast. I offered to help pass the word. When she returned home to Jerusalem (Israel), she sent me the manuscript. I was so convinced of the historical value of her Canol story as a social history that I offered to publish a hundred copies myself."
The Canol was one of the most ambitious egineering projects of the second World War, says the back cover blurb. A crucial supply of crude oil was to be pumped from the small oilfield at Norman Wells, NWT, to a Whitehorse refinery.
"The Canol Project was designed to get inland oil to the air base at Fairbanks because of the Japanese menace to tanker shipments to Alaska," writes Kadmon, who worked on the project in 1943. "In time it would supply energy for a great industrial empire in the Mackenzie Valley. Scads of oil were going to be found; minerals would be brought from nearby Great Bear Lake on the Canadian Shield. There were going to be factories, concert halls and schools. Elmer Pepman, having been a pioneer, would be so wealthy that he could have any woman he wanted!"
A constant thread through the story is an Athabaskan Indian caribou spirit, Betsune Yeneca, who would undoubtedly swat the swarms who came for oil. Nevertheless, thousands of men and women converged on the two camps in the Mackenzie Valley. One was a young, adventuresome redhead whose personality resembles that of the author.
But Kadmon declares Mackenzie Breakup is 'faction', a term used to describe an imaginary product combined with reality.
"With warm winds and climbing sun, spring remains a day or two,
then makes way for summer..."
In the summer of 1942, U.S. engineering troops, machinery and pipe had been dispatched to the end of Alberta's rail and barged down the Mackenzie to Camp Canol. A Canadian company was attempting to expand oil reserves with additional exploratory drilling. A few women were flown into the camps to work for the army's U.S. Engineering Department and for the civilian contractor.
The protagonist, Dian Flanners, had recurring nightmares about smothering under all the piles of paper. Hour after hour, the typists rolled pieces of bond into their machines along with the pink, red, green, blue and white tissues. The keys hammered away on the six layers separated by carbon paper.
When the females weren't on the job, it's easy to imagine the social chaos. Lust, and even sometimes love, stalked the camps. The main theme, typical of wartime or anytime, is the romance between Dian and Major Linn, whose wife and children live Stateside.
A naive Dian is mentored by the older women, who refer to men's obsession with their cucumbers. Until losing her virginity to Linn - a friend of her uncle, who ran the Canol Project from afar - Dian thought men's sex organs were green.
The many details about the Canol project are authentic. So is the mood of an isolation which Kadmon skilfully portrays in four different seasons. "Spring is not gentle with the Canadian northland," she writes. "Arriving late at the
top of the continent, it rushes winter away. With warm winds and climbing sun, spring remains a day or two, then makes way for summer...
"Still, the lazy river won't be hurried as side streams puddle its green ice. Then, while wakened life mocks its bound helplessness, a groaning rends the basin. Too long quiescent, an inner frenzy heaves, shears and crashes apart
the ice. Forced into motion, the Mackenzie River begins its wild race to the Artic Sea."
The title indicates the time when everything comes vibrantly alive in the North. It also denotes the breakup of intimate relationships and friendships as workers leave the camp for the Outside or stay behind to become northerners.
Kadmon hersef intended to return sooner than 1995. The Colorado-born author, the daughter of petroleum geologist Max W. Ball, was 15 years old when the family moved to Edmonton, Alberta. Her dad managed Abasands Oil, a plant to work the Fort McMurray oil-sand deposits on the Athabaska River. After graduating from university, the 20-year-old Jean was hired as a typist with the U.S. Army's engineering department in June, 1943.
Initially, she worked at Camp Canol for the area engineer, who was responsible for the pipeline road. Soon, though, she transferred to the other side of the river to the U.S. engineering department's office at Norman Wells. By January
of 1944, she was enrolled in anthropological studies at the University of Chicago. Her intentions to return north to teach and research went awry there when she met and married an Israeli economics student. They moved to Jerusalem, where she and her family still live.
Over the years, Kadmon departed social science for art and poetry. But the Canol Project, etched indelibly in her memory, kept nagging until she finished it.
The witty and profound narrative is told mainly through use of dialogue, a very difficult technique, which Kadmon has mastered. It renders the book a natural for a musical or stage play.
Mackenzie Breakup, by Jean Kadmon.
Paper, 252 pages, $22.50. Copies can be purchased from
Pathfinder Publications, P.O. Box 185, Carcross, YT