'The Cremation of Sam McGee' With memorable illustrations from painter Ted Harrison, the morbidly funny 1907 Robert Service poem about the fate of a Yukon gold prospector is resurrected as a children's story.
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'The Cremation of Sam McGee'

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'The Cremation of Sam McGee'

'The Cremation of Sam McGee'

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the world's most seasoned traveler never saw a thing on any of his trips. But first, Robert Service left his own home in England to seek adventure and romance in the Yukon during the Gold Rush at the beginning of the 20th century. He wrote poems and tales inspired by the tough terrain and even rougher people of the Canadian Arctic.

The Cremation of Sam McGee is one of his best-known poems. It's been read, recited and adored by children and adults alike for 99 years. Now there's an illustrated version that deserves our attention. Daniel Pinkwater, an adventurer in his own right as well, joins us from his home in upstate New York.

Daniel, thanks very much for being with us.

DANIEL PINKWATER: You there, sourdough Scott?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yes, I am you old grub staker, you.

PINKWATER: You got your mukluks, your anorak? You got your waterproof matches?

SIMON: I don't think they had anoraks in Sam McGee's day. I think that's kind of a, you know, contemporary sporting goods invention. You know, there are - I've been reading this poem every now and then for most of my life.

PINKWATER: Exactly.

SIMON: There is no poem that is more fun to read aloud.

PINKWATER: Exactly.

SIMON: I guarantee you.

PINKWATER: Think about the first time you ever came across it. In my case, I guess I was seven or eight. And you know, it's a big and satisfying jump from Winnie the Pooh.

SIMON: Hmm.

PINKWATER: It's grisly. It's dark. It's dramatic. I thought it was really funny then. I think it's funny now.

SIMON: Leslie Nielsen is from the Yukon.

PINKWATER: Yes.

SIMON: My favorite comic actor. And I think Margot Kidder, if I'm not mistaken, and you know, and a lot of sled dogs. I guess we should read the poem, right?

PINKWATER: Want to toss a coin? Who begins?

SIMON: Let's toss a Canadian quarter, okay?

BLUM: All right.

SIMON: I'm going to reach into my pocket.

PINKWATER: What's on a Canadian quarter? I forget. Is it Her Majesty or a moose or what?

SIMON: Her Majesty is on one side. And look at this, Leslie Nielsen is on the other.

PINKWATER: Ah, excellent. So you get to read first.

SIMON: All right.

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 queerer sights, but the queerest they ever did see was that night on the marge of Lake Laberge I cremated Sam McGee.

PINKWATER: Now, Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows. Why he left his home in the South to roam round the Pole, God only knows. He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell; though he'd often say in his homely way that he'd sooner live in hell. On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail. Talk of your cold! Through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail. If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze, till sometimes we couldn't see. It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

SIMON: And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow, and the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe, he turned to me, and, Cap, says he, I'll cash in this trip, I guess. And if I do, I'm asking that you, you won't refuse my last request.

PINKWATER: Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no. Then he says with a sort of moan, It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone. Yet 'taint being dead, it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains. So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains. A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail. And we started on the streak of dawn, but God, he looked ghastly pale. He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee. And before nightfall, a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

SIMON: There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror driven, with a corpse half-hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given. It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say you may tax your brawn and brains, but you promised true and it's up to you to cremate those last remains.

PINKWATER: Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code. In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load. In the long, long night by the lone firelight while the huskies rounded a ring howled out their woes to the homeless snows, oh God how I loathed the thing.

SIMON: And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow. And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low. The trail was bad. And I felt half mad but I swore I would not give in. And I'd often sing to the hateful thing and it harkened with a grin. Till I came to the marge of Lake Labarge and a derelict there lay. It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the Alice May. And I looked at it and I thought of it and I looked at my frozen chum. And here said I with a sudden cry is my crematorium.

PINKWATER: Some planks I tore from the cabin floor and I lit the boiler fire. Some coal I found that was lying around and I heaped the fuel higher. The flames just soared and the furnace roared, such a blaze you seldom see. And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

SIMON: And I made a hike for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so. And the heavens scowled and the huskies howled and the wind began to blow. It was icy cold but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks and I don't know why. The greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

PINKWATER: I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with a grisly fear, but the stars came out and they danced about, ere again I ventured near. I was sick with dread but I bravely said, I'll just take a peep inside. I guess he's cooked and it's time I looked. Then the door I opened wide.

SIMON: And there sat Sam looking cool and calm in the heart of the furnace roar, and he wore a smile you could see a mile. And he said, Please close that door, it's fine in here but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm. Since I left Plum Tree down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm.

PINKWATER: 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.

SIMON: That's a wonderful poem!

PINKWATER: It's a wonderful poem to discover as a child. This is a great book to discover it in.

SIMON: And the illustrator of this book...

PINKWATER: Ted Harrison. This guy's the real goods. It's wonderful stuff. He's right up my street. I love these pictures.

SIMON: All right. So thanks so much for bringing this wonderful book to our attention, Daniel.

PINKWATER: My tremendous pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: The book is The 20th Anniversary Edition of The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service, of course, with these illustrations by Ted Harrison. It's published by Kids Can Press. Daniel Pinkwater's new book, The Neddiad, hasn't exactly been published yet. Right? What do we say, Daniel?

PINKWATER: Well, it hasn't been published in book form, but through the courtesy of my enlightened publisher Houghton Mifflin, it is available in serial form, a chapter added every week on the Web. You can go to pinkwater.com, where there's a link to theneddiad.com, where you can read it. I did this because it's the best book I've ever written. And Scott, I'd like to come back and talk to you about the book. I'm really proud of it.

SIMON: Yes. Absolutely. Next time.

PINKWATER: Great.

SIMON: Okay. Before we go we'll just mention you can see some of the illustrations from The Cremation of Sam McGee, and well worth finding them, on our Web site, npr.org. Thank you, Daniel.

PINKWATER: Thank you Scott.

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