As author Frank McCourt once noted that everyone has a story to tell. With WALKS BY BIG ALEX’S POND, Henry Van Berkel sets out to tell the tale of a long-passed prospector and, in the process, offers a candid glimpse of his own life story. Over a century ago, Big Alex MacDonald made his way to the Yukon, where he soon found the fame and fortune he sought. Having achieved tremendous gains (with assets totaling some six-hundred million dollars in today’s currency), those in the Yukon community christened Big Alex the ‘Klondike King.’ Despite his success, Big Alex never lost sight of others, and word of his generosity soon spread. And when Big Alex died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-four, the entire town of Dawson attended his funeral. Surprisingly, for all of his wealth, Big Alex’s estate lacked the funds to cover his funeral. As it turns out, the Klondike King was “generous to a fault.”
Decades after Big Alex’s death, Henry Van Berkel’s family left the Netherlands for Nova Scotia. Years later, Van Berkel and his wife would purchase a piece of property that the Klondike King had once lived on. There Van Berkel began taking the daily walks that would eventually inspire WALKS BY BIG ALEX’S POND. As Van Berkel explains in the introduction, the book is a compilation of some thirty-five days’ worth of thoughts acquired while walking his property. Obviously, there’s a detailed overview of Big Alex MacDonald’s travels and business dealings, but it’s essentially a preamble for a much larger story. Part of what makes WALKS BY BIG ALEX’S POND such a compelling read is that it’s three books in one. In addition to the Klondike King’s biography, Van Berkel offers daily observations of his land’s flora and wildlife, not unlike a nature guide or travel journal. Van Berkel also weaves his autobiography into the pages. In fact, Van Berkel’s reflections on his family’s post-war immigration experience provide an equally, if not more compelling story than that of Big Alex.
There’s a fine line between a rambling mess and a cohesive collection of thoughts. In the hands of a lesser writer, WALKS BY BIG ALEX’S POND could easily have wound up the former. But the book is a resounding success, thanks in no small part to Van Berkel’s superb writing. Much of the novel finds Van Berkel looking back on his life. His reflections run the gamut from minor anecdotes to major life events, and through it all, the author remains refreshingly candid. There is no hint of self-aggrandizing or legacy building here, just a simple man trying to make some sense of life’s complexities. The overall effect is far more cathartic than a ‘biography’ has any right to be.
Exploring the cyclical nature of life through a pair of life stories set a century apart, Henry Van Berkel’s WALKS BY BIG ALEX’S POND is an effortless read that examines some difficult topics.
~James Weiskittel for IndieReader