Book Review: The Floor of Heaven

Most people who know me know that I spent three summers in Skagway, AK, driving tour buses. During that time, I gained a lot of knowledge about the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, during which Skagway became a boomtown. Even now, many signs in Skagway contain the word “Klondike,” even though the actual Klondike is another 400 miles north (a fact which some tourists in Skagway are quite disappointed to learn).

So when I saw Howard Blum’s The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush this spring, I decided I had to read it. It tells the stories of three men before, during, and after the gold rush: George Carmack, the man who (along with Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley) discovered gold in the Klondike; Soapy Smith, the con man who was the most powerful man in Skagway during the gold rush; and Charlie Siringo, a cowboy who became a Pinkerton detective. Before reading this book, I knew a lot about the first two, but had never heard of the third.

The story starts well before the gold rush, with each chapter focusing on one of the three men. There are chapters on Carmack’s journey from an AWOL marine to a member of the Tagish Nation, Soapy’s growth from a grifter to the head of an organized crime syndicate in several Colorado towns, and Siringo’s various cases as a “cowboy detective.” As the book progresses, the three men’s lives overlap more and more, as when Siringo meets Carmack in Juneau and Smith tries to steal Carmack’s gold.

Blum has clearly done his research, and has invested a lot of effort in telling a tale that sustains interest, even for someone who has heard part of the story before. There was only one point, late in the book, where it seemed Blum made a mistake. He writes that when Carmack brought his gold out of the Klondike, he and Siringo “crossed the Chilkoot summit and began their descent into American territory.” Two sentences later, he writes that they had left Bonanza Creek (in the Klondike) “earlier on that June morning.” There is no way they could have traveled 400 miles in less than a day. Also, Blum writes that they took a string of packhorses over the Chilkoot. But in all that I have read about the gold rush, the Chilkoot was too steep for pack animals. Something about how Blum tells this part of the story doesn’t make sense.

Aside from that, I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to read an engaging book about an exciting period in US and Canadian history.

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Book Review: Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Many American Christians operate within a “fall paradigm” when it comes to the history of the United States. A fall paradigm sees the world like this: at some point in the past, things were the way they should be. Then something happened (a “fall”) that changed things for the worse. Our task today is to get things back to the way they were. There is nothing inherently wrong with a fall paradigm. The question is whether it depicts reality accurately or not.

Enter John Fea, who teaches history at Messiah College. He explains in his introduction that one of his goals in the book is to convince his readers to think historically:

Most human beings tend to be present-minded when it comes to confronting the past. The discipline of history was never meant to function as a means of getting one’s political point across or convincing people to join a cause. Yet Americans use the past for these purposes all the time. Such an approach to the past can easily degenerate into a form of propaganda or, as the historian Bernard Bailyn described it, “indoctrination by historical example.” (xxv)

The book comes in three parts. In the first part, he traces the idea that the United States was meant to be, in some sense, “Christian,” from the 1700s to today. In the second part, he examines the question, “Was the American Revolution a Christian Event?” In the third, he looks at the religious beliefs of a range of founders: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Witherspoon, John Jay and Samuel Adams.

The last line of the book, which is intended to summarize Part Three, actually does a good job of summing up the book as a whole: “In the end, a close look at the beliefs of these statesmen reminds us that Christianity was present at the time of the American founding, but it often merged with other ideas that were compatible with, but not necessarily influenced by, Christianity” (242). When I wrote a paper on this subject for a history class in seminary, this is what I found as well. I don’t believe that the fall paradigm through which many Christians see the history of the United States is entirely accurate.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and I hope that it reaches a large audience, especially Christians. I hope that Fea accomplishes his goal of getting “Christians to see the danger of cherry-picking from the past as a means of promoting a political or cultural agenda in the present” (xvii).