Jack London's great granddaughter heeds the call of the Klondike

Tarnel Abbott, whose famous ancestor is forever linked to Yukon lore, is in Dawson City for the Jack London Festival. 'It took me a while to understand the legacy and how important it is.'

'Kind of thrilling,' says Tarnel Abbott on her first visit to Yukon, where London made his name

Tarnel Abbott poses with a bust of her great grandfather, Jack London, on Main Street in Whitehorse. It's the first time she's been to Yukon. (Submitted by Tarnel Abbott)

Tarnel Abbott, an activist and retired librarian, did not always embrace the legacy of her legendary forebear, author Jack London. 

"It is something that I kind of grew into in more recent years," she said from Dawson City, Yukon, where she's participating in this weekend's Jack London Festival.

It's the first time she's been to Yukon.

"It took me a while to understand the legacy, and how important it is."

Jack London writing, in 1905. London was not yet famous when he joined the stampeders heading north to Dawson in 1897. He spent one winter prospecting in the Klondike, developing scurvey, and leaving empty-handed. But he found the raw material for his most famous stories. (Century Company)

Her visit to Dawson is likely to deepen that appreciation — London is easily the most well-known and celebrated stampeder to have reached the Klondike, a century ago.

His Yukon-inspired stories, among them The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and To Build a Fire, are classics of American fiction, and countless tourists arrive in Dawson every summer with copies stashed in their RVs, canoes or backpacks. Legions of fans make the pilgrimage from Germany, and Japan.

They typically visit the Jack London Cabin and museum, where there's a replica of his gold rush cabin. They might even stop for a bite at the Jack London Grill. And, when they pass through Whitehorse, they can stop for a picture at the Jack London bust on Main Street.

Dawson 'a little more authentic' 

"It's kind of thrilling, you know," Abbott said as she took in some sights in Dawson this week, "very charming."

She lives in the epicentre of all things Jack London — Oakland, Calif., where London also lived for years. Oakland also has a replica of his gold rush cabin, and a Jack London Square that's a commercial hub. Abbott prefers Dawson's lower-key embrace of his legacy.

"There's something a little more authentic up here that I appreciate," she said. "He's less commercialized."

The Jack London cabin and musuem is a mandatory stop in Dawson City for the legions of London fans who arrive every summer in the Klondike. (Google)

One of the things that's most intrigued her is Yukon's First Nations heritage. She said many of London's stories addressed "that culture clash of first contact."

"And I would be very curious to know how those stories are viewed by the people today, the First Nations people. Because I think, by and large, Jack was sympathetic to the aboriginal population."

Abbott has already visited the Dawson's Jack London Cabin and museum ("sweet"), and had plans for a boat trip on the Yukon River. She even bought a Dawson City T-shirt — "had to prove I was here, you know!"

London's political bent

This weekend, she'll be talking about London and his work at the Jack London Festival, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the author's death.

"If they want me to speak, I'll speak my mind," she said, earlier this week.

For Abbott, a long-time community activist in Oakland, that means talking not just about London's brief Klondike sojourn, but his life-long socialist bent. Many of London's works (such as The Iron Heel and People of the Abyss) vividly reflect his politics.

Abbott with staff of the Klondike Visitors Association in Dawson City this week. 'There's something a little more authentic up here that I appreciate,' she said. (Paul Robitaille)

Abbott has a particular fondness for The Iron Heel, a classic dystopian novel about the rise of tyranny in the U.S., "because of its political relevance to our times, in the United States."

She's been a supporter of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, and says she's terrified of "the opposition, especially in the form of that guy with the funny hair."

"If he happens to win, I might be heading north to Canada, myself," she joked.

In the meantime, she's happy to be a visitor, and to have been invited to the festival. She hopes to come back to Dawson, next time with some relatives.

"Once you have been in the geographical location, certainly it effects your imagination when you're reading a story in that setting.

"Of course, I'm not here in winter!"

Dawson City's Jack London Festival, celebrating the author's life and work, includes talks, readings and film screenings. It runs until Sunday afternoon.