Cremation of Sam McGee book cover 001

Several weeks ago, I wrote a column for the R&L about my seventh grade teacher, Mr. Dan Woody, of Statesville. I recounted how Mr. Woody’s teaching style at Mooresville Junior High involved the use of what might be described as “he-man” poetry: “The Highwayman,” “Gunga Din,” “Casey at the Bat,” “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and others as well.

A week or two after the column was published, I received an email from Del Leonard Jones, who lives near Washington, D.C. He had seen my column on the Internet and was struck by the coincidence that he had just finished a 293-page novel based on the 1907 poem by Robert W. Service, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and was currently at work on another novel, this one based on the 1888 classic, “Casey at the Bat,” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, as viewed from the umpire’s point-of-view.

Well. I got in touch with Mr. Jones that same day. For those of you not familiar with Mr. Service’s poem, it starts as follows:

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.

Robert W. Service (1874-1958) was affectionately known as “The Bard of the Yukon.” His poem is in the public domain, so you can copy it if you wish. You need to read the poem before starting Mr. Jones’s book — set in 1898 — and to put you in the mood, see if you can find a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 silent film, “The Gold Rush,” to watch beforehand. While you’re at it, listening to some barely audible Scott Joplin rags wouldn’t hurt, either. To set the mood, I like to imagine some Scott Joplin being played in the background by a pianist in an Alaskan saloon of the period.

What Jones has done is to mesh two poems, “The Cremation…” and Service’s other best-known work, “The Shooting of Dan McGraw,” into a story of the Klondike. Mr. Jones blends into this heady brew newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, fictional larger-than-life characters, the sinking of the USS Maine , the Spanish-American War and even poet Robert W. Service himself. Reading the finished product, you can almost hear the snow crunch under your mukluks.

A word to the wise: This is not a book for children, as the characters sometimes act like grown-ups in language and otherwise.

I questioned Mr. Jones by email as to how he became a fan of “The Cremation.” His response was interesting, to say the least.

“Both my grandfather, Walter Jones, and my WWII veteran father, Dale Jones, who is alive and doing Tai Chi at 94, memorized ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ and ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew,’” he wrote. “My father said he never saw the poems written down as a child, but he just learned them at about age 9-10 when his father recited ballads frequently during the pre-television days of the Great Depression. They lived in San Jose, California. As a child, I tried to continue the tradition. I memorized about the first third of ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’ before losing interest. At 64, I can still recite that one-third.”

Mr. Jones’s novel is his first foray into book-length fiction although he has written more than 300 cover stories for “USA Today” and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting.

“I am almost finished with my second novel,” he reports, “that is based on Earnest Thayer’s well-known poem, ‘Casey at the Bat.’ It is set in 1888 at the time baseball became a professional sport and is told from the umpire’s point of view. I umpire fast-pitch softball at the high school and collegiate level. I am giving the umpire Asperger’s Syndrome … Of course, no one knew what Asperger’s was in 1888, but the umpire has the symptoms.”

Asperger’s, for those of us who have forgotten or never knew, is a rare developmental disorder affecting one’s ability to socialize and communicate with others.

He continues, “As you can see, I’m trying to develop a genre for historical fiction, prose based on old, well-known ballads. Since I’ve written ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee,’ many seniors have told me that schools once had students memorize poetry as part of their curriculum. Many older people know ‘The Cremation…’ and ‘Casey at the Bat’ by heart, but it’s a discipline that is fading with the Greatest Generation. I have been informed that John McCain learned it while a prisoner of war in Vietnam.”

“When I left the newspaper reporting business in 2010, I wanted to keep writing but I was done doing interviews. Therefore, I decided to write historical fiction far enough back so that anyone I could possibly interview was dead (such as publisher William Randolph Hearst, artist Frederic Remington and Charles Sigsbee, Captain of the USS Maine.”

Ah, yes, forced memorization. In the seventh grade at Mooresville Junior High, I was forced to memorize William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” while a prisoner of my reading teacher, the formidable Miss Cora Freeze. Memorization did me no harm, I suppose, and I, too, can poorly quote about a third of it. I wonder if today’s grade-school students are required to read poems, let alone memorize them. If you remember the poem or are intrigued by the sound of it, you surely will like Mr. Jones’ novel of a classic poem come to life.

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“The Cremation of Sam McGee,” by Del Leonard Jones, is currently available on Amazon.com in Print ($17.99) and Kindle ($8.99) versions and will be available through Barnes & Noble in August.

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