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At the Mountain’s Edge
Reading Group GuideTopics & Questions for Discussion
1. When Liza’s father announces he’s moving their family to the Yukon, Liza worries about the uncertainties of the journey ahead of them. In what ways did Liza and her family anticipate the hardships of their travel? What surprised them?
2. All Ben has ever wanted to be was a member of the North-West Mounted Police. What does being a Constable mean to Ben? How has his childhood played a part in his career choice?
3. Liza and her mother are two of the few women traveling to the Klondike. What unique struggles do they face along the trail?
4. Though her father and Stan assure Liza that they will take care of her, Liza often wishes to learn and do things on her own. How does her desire for independence develop throughout the novel? Do her choices influence how others see her?
5. Throughout the novel, Ben struggles with his temper. What are some of the ways he tries to control his anger? What effect does Miller have on him? What effect does Liza?
6. Why is Ben so determined to put himself in the service of others? What motivates him to take such a difficult post in the Klondike?
7. Blue/Keitl is such a key figure in the story. What does she mean to Liza? To Ben?
8. When Stan dies, Liza is angry with herself, but also with Ben. Why does she blame Ben initially? What makes her forgive him later on?
9. Discuss the theme of survival in the book. How does the unforgiving landscape affect the cast of characters? What do you think keeps Liza and Ben going despite all the hardships they endure?
10. You’ve likely heard of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but were you aware of the institution’s first iteration, the North-West Mounted Police and their motto Maintien le Droit
? How did their presence shape the north? What obstacles did they face?
11. As much as the gold rush was about individual gain, there are many examples of friendship and generosity in the novel. Consider George and Belinda. What do you think their characters say about the value of community?
12. The Klondike Gold Rush is often romanticized because of the riches a few lucky prospectors attained, but the rewards came at great personal cost. How does the novel illustrate the gold rush’s larger impact on the Indigenous and the environment? Does the book change how you think about this moment in history?
13. Fathers play an important role in both Ben and Liza’s lives. Discuss how the choices that Liza and Ben make are influenced by their fathers’ dreams and desires. How might Ben and Liza have turned out differently?
14. During Ben and Liza’s first Christmas in Dawson, they exchange gifts. What’s the significance of the presents they’ve chosen for each other? What do you think they’re trying to say with the gifts?
15. Ben thinks of Liza as the person who broke down the walls he put up around him. Why is Liza the person to get through to Ben?
16. What do you think Liza’s family would have thought of her life in Dawson City, and later in Frank? Do you think Liza’s father would have made different choices?
17. If you were Ben, how would you have handled working together with Miller?
18. Before he moves to Frank, Ben returns to his family home. Why is it important for him to go there? What does he gain by visiting past memories?
19. Discuss the role of the Frank Slide in the novel. How do Ben and Liza’s experiences along the trail and in Dawson City inform the way they act during the calamity? How does the Slide affect their actions afterwards?
20. What is the significance of the title At the Mountain’s Edge
?Enhance Your Book Club
Learn more about the Klondike Gold Rush and the real people of Dawson City by reading about the history here in The Canadian Encyclopedia
Many of the characters in At the Mountain’s Edge
are gold dust miners, but panning for gold was also a popular method during the Klondike Gold Rush. You can learn more about that practice in this instructional video from the Yukon (and maybe find a spot to try your own luck): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9C3KAlMrwDE
The Frank Slide was a devastating event in 1903 that killed over 90 people and displaced an entire town. Find out more at the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre: https://frankslide.ca/learn
If you share the author’s fascination with history, consider reading her previous book, Come from Away
, with your book club. Discuss the ways in which women’s lives have changed from the turn of the twentieth century to the Second World War. How are the expectations placed on Grace in Come from Away
different from those Liza navigates? What moments demonstrate how the characters are “of their time”?A Conversation with Genevieve GrahamYou’ve mentioned that you came to your love of Canadian history later in life. When did you realize you were fascinated by these places and events? What inspired your interest?
It definitely hit me later in life, and I’m so glad it did! In high school, history class was unavoidable. I memorized the mandatory names, dates, and places for exams then promptly forgot them. History meant nothing to me. It wasn’t until I was in my forties, when I began to read historical fiction, that everything changed. Here was the adventure and romance I craved, woven together with compelling facts. I was swallowed up by the genre and devoured all I could find by master historical fiction authors like Wilbur Smith, Penelope Williamson, Paullina Simons, and Susanna Kearsley. Just for fun, I began to write my first book and fell in love with the process.
In 2008, my family and I moved from Calgary to Nova Scotia, and everything about this province was new to us. We’d never lived by the ocean, never known any lobstermen, didn’t understand about the tides, the red clay, the fog that came in so thick you could cut it. The people were friendly and welcoming, but they were different from people we’d known before. Some of their families had settled here centuries before. I started to wonder who else might have lived here . . . in a fictional sense.
Canadian history is rich with little known, forgotten, and untold stories. The one that grabbed me was the Halifax Explosion, and now that I know about it, I can’t understand why it took this long. Just over a hundred years ago, two ships collided in the Halifax harbour, one of which was loaded bow to stern with explosives. Nearly two thousand people were killed by a blast that levelled the city, hundreds were blinded by flying shards of glass, and over twenty-six thousand were left homeless. The Halifax Explosion was the largest manmade explosion before Hiroshima. How was it neither me nor my kids, who were attending high school in Nova Scotia at that time, had never heard of it? Halifax was Canada’s busiest port in WWI, crowded with sailors and soldiers headed in and out of the war, and that got my attention as well. Imagine surviving that war only to have your home blown out from beneath you. What physical, mental, and emotional scars might they have had as a result? And what of the people they loved? From those questions was born Tides of Honour and my passion for Canadian history. Once my eyes were opened, I couldn’t look away. This country is rich with stories just waiting to be told.What drew you to learning about the Klondike Gold Rush?
The idea first called out to me in May 2015 when I was in Victoria on a book tour with the great Susanna Kearsley. We were staying right near the Royal BC Museum, and a huge banner was draped on the outside of the building, announcing an upcoming exhibit on the Klondike Gold Rush. My first reaction was, “What a story that must be!” My second was, “That’s a part of Canadian history? Well, it’s about to become one of my book themes!” The more I learned about the incredible journey those tens of thousands of people made through the unforgiving mountains, the desperate goldfields, and the unique world of Dawson City, the more I wanted to know.The experience of prospecting for gold was very different in the Yukon than in Alaska, largely because of the presence of the North-West Mounted Police, and a lot of your admiration for the Mounties is reflected in At the Mountain’s Edge. What would you say impressed you most about these men? Did you uncover any challenges or misadventures that didn’t make it into the novel?
I dare say the Klondike Gold Rush was different from similar events in the Yukon entirely because of the North-West Mounted Police. When gold was discovered, there was no well-defined boundary between American and Canadian land in the north, and as a result, there was a bit of a race to see who could claim the goldfields first. The Mounties established themselves before the U.S. could bring their forces, and Canadian laws (and manners!) took over after that. In contrast, the town of Skagway (from the Tlingit “Skagua,” which means “the place where the north wind blows”) was just over the border on the American side, and it was a place overrun by criminals and violence, ruled by Soapy Smith and his infamous gang of thugs.
There was nothing simple about establishing and maintaining that border. The odds were stacked against anyone making the trek north in the first place, and the Mounties had to do so much more than just “get there.” Imagine trudging up a frozen mountainside day after day, building an outpost at the very peak of the Chilkoot Pass despite -60°C weather and blizzards that could bury a tent in a matter of hours. Now imagine you are paid one dollar per day, and you have no set hours, no benefits, little to no medicine, no real rest, and no opportunity to decide when you’ve had enough. Leaving the Mounties before your contract specified (three or five years) was more than frowned upon—it was regarded similarly to desertion from the military. Oh, and you weren’t allowed to be married unless you had spent at least five years in service, had a specific amount of money saved up, and subjected your bride-to-be to an in-depth background check.
Considering the number of stampeders in the Yukon at that time, the NWMP were seriously undermanned, and often they shared their meagre food supplies with the starving prospectors. Sometimes food was so short in supply that the Mounties would excuse lesser crimes because they had no food to feed prisoners. The use of the woodpile as a form of punishment was a brilliant move, since firewood was always in need up there. The Klondike Gold Rush could have been an overwhelming disaster for everyone involved, which is why I have such respect for the Mounties. It was impossible for me to include everything I learned in the book, so I’ve posted some of the deleted scenes on my website.What came first: the characters and their love story, or this moment in history as the setting? What makes those two elements work together for you?
For me, the moment in history is the first hook, and it grows organically from there. I think of my process as three separate steps. First, I learn about the historic event that has caught my attention. Second, I learn about what else is going on at that time—the politics, the fashions, the cultures, and the attitudes of the day. The last step is to drop myself into that crowd of people right around the time of the event. That’s where I meet my characters. They’re already there, waiting for me, and it’s almost as if they lead me around, showing me things I need to know in order to visualize history and to write the book.
I see the story unfold almost like I’m watching a movie; while I’m learning the history I am also seeing and feeling the reactions of the characters as they experience everything. Sometimes, like with my novel Promises to Keep
, the historic event is so traumatic, so incredibly difficult to imagine happening in the first place, it can be a challenge to find the fictional story in the middle of the facts, but for me, those characters bring it all to life.
The wonderful thing about writing At the Mountain’s Edge
was the way the NWMP became a part of my Yukon story. I had been planning to write something about the Mounties, arguably the most recognizable icon of Canada, but I hadn’t begun to work on anything for them yet. As soon as I started reading about the Klondike, I understood that this was the Mounties’ story. That’s the magic about writing for me. You never know what is going to grow from the roots of a story—but we have some very fertile land up here!How did you first learn about the Frank Slide? And why was it important for you to include the disaster in Ben and Liza’s story?
I lived in Calgary for 17 years before moving to Nova Scotia, and the Frank Slide was pretty well-known around there. I remember going to the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre years ago, but I don’t remember being all that affected by the story. I was a young mom at the time, and I think I was more distracted with watching my kids than I was about taking it all in. When I started writing this book, I realized the Frank Slide was right around the same time as the gold rush, and though it was far from the Yukon, I knew I had to include it. I want to write about as much Canadian history as I can, and it made sense to include both these events in one story—tying them neatly together with the NWMP.Can you tell us about one of the most interesting pieces of history that you learned in your research?
I was interested to discover that between 1896 and 1900, over a thousand amazing, unconventional women made it over the Chilkoot and White Passes and ended up in Dawson City. Considering the suffragettes were barely in the spotlight at that time, these women displayed a rare sense of adventure and courage. Most who set out on the voyage had no idea what they were getting into—to be fair, neither did their male counterparts—but they were determined. Journalist Annie Hall Strong claimed that she and many other women had contracted “acute Klondicitis.” Not all struck it rich like Belinda Mulrooney, but they found their way as wives, dancers, business owners (including saloons), actresses, prostitutes, writers, and even prospectors.What are you working on next?
I am writing a story about the very important and timely subject of Canada’s British Home Children. Between 1869 and 1949, over 120,000 impoverished British children (from toddlers to teens) were taken from the filthy, overcrowded streets in and around London, Liverpool, Glasgow, and similar city centres and shipped to Canada as part of a child migration scheme to give the children better lives. It also cleared the Victorian streets of “gutter rats,” boosted a young Canada’s population, provided extremely inexpensive farm labour, and put money in the pockets of the organizations arranging their transport. As part of their indenture contract, the children were to receive food, lodging, and education, among other things, but many never did. The majority of Canada’s British Home Children were treated as slaves, suffering terrible abuse and even death. Most Canadians regarded the children as human garbage. Many of them spent their adult lives in silence, too ashamed to tell even their families about their childhoods. But thanks to the surge in interest in genealogy through online sites like ancestry.ca, the descendants of the British Home Children are digging up the truth, and it has now been estimated that approximately 12% of Canadians are descendants of British Home Children. And yet, few of us have ever heard of these children. I aim to change that!