Gold Diggers Review in The Wall Street Journal

Extracts from Wall Street Journal review by Thomas Vinciguerra (October 30, 2010)

From 1896 to 1899, spurred by tales of soft yellow nuggets being plucked from the soil and rivers of northwest Canada, hordes of "stampeders" stormed the region. Some of the many thousands who flocked to the Klondike were adventure seekers, attracted to the liberty of the "sporting life," but for most the lure was lucre. As Charlotte Gray puts it in "Gold Diggers," her rollicking account of the period: "In the 1890s, gold was as important as oil is today: it made the world turn."

Contrary to the publicity about the Klondike, finding gold there was not in fact as easy as bending over. After hacking their way through the wilderness, prospectors endured subzero temperatures in the winter, swarms of mosquitoes in the summer, and backbreaking labor at all times as they panned, sluiced, blasted, and burned their way through the wilderness. Ms. Gray does a fine job of evoking the Klondike's smelly, sweaty, roughhouse atmosphere. A sponge bath every couple of weeks passed for personal hygiene; outhouse stalls turned into solid columns of frozen excrement. One establishment celebrated New Year's Eve by serving a specialty: pickled nose of moose. Fortunes were so often made and lost that the prospectors treated the gold they found almost casually: One lucky striker stacked gold worth $1.5 million in his cabin. Another, more reckless soul gambled away almost $8,000 in nuggets on a single evening.

"Gold Diggers" isn't an authoritative history of the Klondike gold rush. Instead, Ms. Gray hews to the experiences of a few individuals...

Ms. Gray doesn't make grand claims. "The stampede north did not change world history," she acknowledges. It did, however, change her subjects—the willful, young, Irish-born Belinda Mulrooney, Ms. Gray's sixth case study, made so much as a merchant and restaurateur that she eventually moved to Monte Carlo.