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Robert Service: Under the Spell of the Yukon

by Enid Mallory

To get the most from Ontario author Enid Mallory’s biography of Robert Service, it is a good idea to have a copy of Service’s poems at hand.

As Jack Whyte says in his introduction, Robert Service is a difficult subject. He never let the truth get in the way of a good story and tended to fictionalize, not only in his poetry and novels, but also in his journalism (such as his Toronto Star story about a German and French soldier flipping a coin to see who would surrender to the other) and in his reporting of his own life. Even Service’s brother said he had a “disregard for the truth” and that “most of his writing was pretence.”

Given that Mallory has little chance of getting at the absolute truth, despite her extensive use of contemporary letters, she does a good job of portraying the poet’s character and placing him in the context of his time and place. As the title suggests, at the core of Mallory’s book is Service’s time in the Yukon, but his entire life is laid out in some detail. An index, chapter notes, and some good historical photographs increase both the book’s accessibility and its utility.

Under the Spell of the Yukon is a readable and entertaining account of an interesting and insecure young man who took refuge in stories and became a Canadian icon. For those who know only “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” this is a good starting point for discovering more, including what the real Sam thought of it all.