Monday, August 21, 2006

Review: The Cremation of Sam McGee

Okay, I must profess my ignorance here and admit that I did not know "The Cremation of Sam McGee" before I received this book for review. What drew me in despite the title, however, were the illustrations. Take a look at the beauty of the cover illustration!

By way of an introduction, let me quote from Pierre Berton's foreword to the new Kids Can Press edition of this work:

"This book represents a happy marriage between the most eloquent of the Yukon poets and the most brilliant of the Yukon artists. Robert W. Service and Edward Hardy Harrison have more than that in common: both were born in England; both roamed the world; both were caught up by what Service called 'the spell of the Yukon.' No one caught that spell in words better than Service; no painter has captured the particular essence of the Yukon experience better than Harrison."

That's a beautiful introduction to an amazing work. The Cremation of Sam McGee tells the tale of one man's attempt to get warm in the Arctic, and another man's dedication to fulfilling that wish despite the odds. Here's the problem:

  • Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee,/where the cotton blooms and blows./Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole./God only knows. He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;/Though he'd often say in his homely way that/'he'd sooner live in hell.'

Now, old Sam has just one request for our narrator--if something happens to him, would our narrator please cremate him? So, when worst comes to worst, he does, despite the hardship. He uses an abandoned ship, the "Alice May," as a "cre-ma-tor-eum." The narrator sets the ship on fire and, later, decides to check on McGee. What does he find?

  • And there sat Sam,/looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;/ And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said:/ 'Please close that door./It's fine in here,/but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm--/Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee,/it's the first time I've been warm.'

Just enough humor to overcome any fear in a child.

Harrison's paintings are stunning, iconic, and truly evocative of the Arctic. And, this book (as Tara from Raab Associates has informed me), was the subject of an NPR conversation between Daniel Pinkwater and Scott Simon this weekend!

(For more on the great Daniel Pinkwater today, check out Susan's post at Chicken Spaghetti.)