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The True Story of Trapper Jack’s Left Big Toe

by Ian Wallace

Even though Ian Wallace is best known as an illustrator, his text is stronger than his artwork in The True Story of Trapper Jack’s Left Big Toe. Wallace’s writing captures both the hyperbole of the Yukon, as voiced by Trapper Jack, and the more naturalistic dialogue of two young boys who seek him out.

This is a real tall tale. Young Josh, a newcomer to Dawson City, has heard many crazy stories about the Yukon from his friend Gabe, but challenges only one: the yarn that claims Trapper Jack’s left big toe sits in a tobacco tin behind the bar at the Sourdough Saloon. Trapper Jack promises to show the boys the digit, but a wild dog seizes it before they get a good look. A fruitless chase ends with the consolation of Ovaltine and marshmallows. The shared experience leaves the three fast friends, and then Jack unveils another surprise at the end.

Trapper Jack’s dialogue has a hokey verve that made me smile. He vividly explains why the toe wasn’t buried: “A shovel wouldn’t make a dent on a bear’s butt in January. …That saloon’s a much more invitin’ restin’ place than frozen dirt.” Josh’s reactions are freshly expressed and touched with wry humour: “I thought he was right about the saloon and the dirt – and the bear.”

Wallace’s bleak palette conveys the frozen North, but does nothing to complement the whimsy of the text. The stark compositions, and unvaryingly flat, dull colours are simply not enticing to children. My own offspring didn’t want to read the book because they judged it “boring” from the cover – a shame, since its grotesquerie certainly appeals to young tastes.