The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush by Howard Blum

The author of American Lightning has created a compelling book about the Yukon gold rush and three of its more colorful characters.

(Crown, $26)

“It must have been a daunting task” to create such a compelling read about the Yukon gold rush from the shaky materials that history actually left behind, said Laura Miller in Aiming to recapture the raucous spirit of the 1890s frenzy, author Howard Blum has unearthed an “unabashedly entertaining” story that required him to capture two characters who made their livings on deceit and a third known to his peers as “Lying George.” George Carmack was, in fact, the gold prospector who kicked off the rush to western Canada’s Yukon territory when, in 1896, he finally hit pay dirt on one of his claims. But that was two years before this story brings him in contact with a Pinkerton detective named Charlie Siringo and a con man named Jeff “Soapy” Smith. Siringo specialized in assuming false identities; Smith specialized in convincing street crowds that the soap packages he was peddling might contain at least one $100 bill.

Blum might be stretching the truth himself, said Mark Lewis in The Wall Street Journal. After tracing the trio’s separate paths to an Alaskan waypoint just south of the Yukon, he “brings them together for a climactic 1898 confrontation” that may never have happened. Blum tells us that Smith plotted to rob Carmack of his gold but was foiled by Siringo, but the sources he cites make no mention of the attempted crime. “This is no mere quibble. Without this robbery episode, Blum’s central figures would never cross paths, and his carefully structured plot would fall apart.”

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Blum appears to be counting on readers to accept some level of yarn spinning, said Jonah Raskin in the San Francisco Chronicle. The author of 2008’s American Lightning admits that while researching this patch of the past, the untrustworthiness of his main characters caused him to embrace their narrative embroideries. If you don’t mind playing along, Blum’s tale of “colorful cowboys and ornery thieves” is mostly rollicking fun. In refusing to stick with facts, it may even be “truer to the spirit of the West.”

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