“There are Strange Things done in the Midnight Sun

By the men who moil for gold,

The arctic trails have their secret tales

that would make your blood run cold…

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

was that night on the marge of Lake LeBarge,

I cremated Sam McGee.”

The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service

As I was reading this to my 5-month old nephew the other week, it occurred to me that this poem makes a very strange bedtime story. Sam McGee dies in the first few verses and makes his buddy Cap promise to cremate his remains, so as not to be buried in the frozen ground of the Arctic. Cap hauls the corpse over the trail trying to figure out a way to dispose of the body. He chances upon an abandoned marge stuck in the ice at Lake Lebarge, lights a fire in the ship’s old boiler, tosses in the body of Sam McGee, and leaves so that he doesn’t “hear him sizzle so.” There is a surprise ending straight out of magic realism.

Still, the poem has this intoxicating rhythm that makes it vivid and funny. I used to be able to recite the whole thing by heart and performed it a couple times as a dramatic monologue (in my former life as a teenage theatre geek.) It isn’t hip or modern – some people don’t like sing-song rhyme – and it deals with death and fighting the elements and trying to keep a promise because “the trail had its own stern code.” Those grizzled prospectors wanted Gold! but they also had their honour.

The edition I have is published as a children’s picture book with gorgeous illustrations by Yukon artist Ted Harrison. When the wee babies get older, I’ll keep telling them Sam McGee, and throw in “Jabberwocky” and some of those violent old Norse folktales to boot. Gibberish doesn’t get much better than “The vorpal blade went snicker-snack.”

A lot of children’s literature, folk tales, fairy tales and fables are actually quite violent, no news there. Is it a recent tendency among adults to try and sanitize all that so that the kiddies don’t hear so much about the Troll under the Bridge eating the Billy Goats Gruff – couldn’t they just go and have nice picnic instead? I don’t know much about children – probably because I don’t have any – but I wonder if “protecting” kids from bad things in children’s books desensitizes them to all the sick shit they will face later on?