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Otto Nordling, champion of Yukon poet Thomas Brooks

Thomas Brooks biography

The Vancouver Sun - Monday, June 21, 1976

By Phil Hanson

    The sun went down in Whitehorse town,
and white lay winter snow,
    And lights were bright as the stars of night,
where the trail men loved to go.
    Their souls could mar in the Klondike bar,
if hell but called the roll.
    And the welkin rang as they fought and sang,
and echoed to the Pole.

    That's the first verse of a rousing ballad, A Saga of the Yukon, and, no, it's not by Robert Service.

    The renown of the bard of the Yukon has overshadowed the works of his contemporaries, some of whom are said to be equally capable of matching the like sof The Shooting of Dan MsGrew. But outside of a limited geographical area, certainly south of 60, the also-rans in the shadow of Service have remained obscure.

    One such sourdough was Thomas Brooks who in 1905 bought a small boat in Whitehorse and drifted down the Yukon River to Dawson. He lived in the Yukon, a prospector, miner, woodsman, poet and balladeer, until his death in 1964.

    "Robert Service came along at the right time and his works achieved widespread circulation," explains a champion of Brooks, Otto Nordling, of North Vancouver.

    Nordling, who many readers of the letters to the editor pages will remember as a champion of a better deal for senior citizens, has donated and transferred all rights to Brooks' published and unpublished ballads and poems to the territorial archives in Whitehorse.

    Included are 36 unpublished, hand-written pieces that were stored by Brooks in a large mustard tin.

    Nordling hopes that if the archives publish them in a book, Brooks "might go over."

    "You never know," he said hopefully, "some of them are pretty good."

    "He spent years on his ballads and nerver made any money on them, in fact it cost money to get them published.

    If Nordling can do something to make the name and works of the old sourdough better-known it will be another feather in the cap of a man who, while he claims not to be a historian, has made a significant impact on the history of the territory.

    Born in Sweden, Nordling came to the Yukon as a child, graduated from Dawson High School, and worked there as a banker until shortly before the Second World War. At that time Dawson was still an active, important town.

    He became a career Army man and it was during a stint in Ottawa in 1951 that he discovered a ghastly oversight. The Yukon coat of arms, featuring a lion and symbolizing mountains and gold, had never been officially recognized.

    "Well, when I discovered this, I got in touch with the minister of Northern Affairs and told him that the Yukon had no official coat of arms," he recalls.

    The upshot was that the territory was given an entirely new coat of arms, a husky replacing the less-appropriate lion.

    The new coat of arms was handed over in a ceremony in Whitehorse April 5, 1956, an event missed by Nordling.

    Nordling has been a noted supporter of the modern archives in Whitehorse. Other donations have included tow original volume sof Robert Service works, one of which, The Pretender, was a novel not set in the Yukon; a series of old pictorial booklets published in the north depicting life and scenery around the turn of the century; and volume one, number one of the Klondike News, the first big paper in Dawson.

    The Brooks collection came into Nordling's possession in 1963. Brooks donated the works, and the rights to them, to Nordling in 1963, just a year before his death. Ironically, the two had only met once, for a total of three hours, back in 1957.

    However, the two developed a corresponding friendship as Nordling, in best form, fired letters to Ottawa and elsewhere to help Brooks with his project to establish a senior citizens' centre in Whitehorse, a building that the sourdough resolutely avoided moving into himself.

    "People wanted him to go to an old folks' home," remembers Nordling, "but he said he'd rather freeze in hell than move from his log cabin in Carcross."

    One letter Nordling sent was to Queen Elizabeth with a copy of Brooks' work The Ballad of Elisabeth II, written after her trip to the Yukon in 1959. A nice letter of thanks was received from Buckingham Palace.

    The handwritten original has been framed and hangs on a wall at the Carcross railway station.

    Nordling himself likes much of Brooks' work who pressed for favourites, will single out A Saga of the Yukon and another ballad, The Sourdough, that tells the story of a lost prospector and the half-breed girl who finds him alive but ill.

    As for Brooks, he chose as an epitaph this verse from his short poem, The Lonesome Trail:

    The summer's sun will shine again,
    Though hills be decked with snow,
    And weeping skies will shed the rain,
    Where his soul was wont to go.