When Pierre Berton was barely out of his teens, his mother wrote a book about him entitled It’s a Boy! Since Berton was completely unknown at the time, it was hardly surprising that she failed to find a publisher. But the anecdote—which Berton recounts in the first volume of his new autobiography, Starting Out—hints at the extra-large dose of motherly pride that helped create his own almost superhuman drive. In 33 years Berton has churned out as many books, as well as becoming Canada’s best known media personality. His career demonstrates an insatiable hunger for facts, new excitements, and achievements—a quality reflected in the highoctane journalistic prose of Starting Out.
Unlike many memoirs, it is not a particularly reflective book. But it is crammed with engaging incidents.
Berton wrote previously about his early life in the Yukon in Drifting Home, considered by many critics to be his best book. But he mines that vein successfully again in Starting Out, recounting a small boy’s adventures among the ruined buildings and machines that survived the great Gold Rush of 1898. Starting Out also recalls his family’s eventual arrival in Vancouver, where Berton served his journalistic apprenticeship at the University of British Columbia student newspaper and local dailies.
The skills he developed there laid the basis for his career. Above all, Berton is a superb reporter, a talent evident in his description of a hanging in Vancouver in 1945. He catches its flavor with extraordinary vividness.
“The condemned man looked up and saw the noose, and he too seemed surprised at its size,” Berton writes. “Indeed, it dwarfed and dominated him, and when they set it on his neck it seemed as if he might slip right through it.” Such moments of acute
observation make Starting Out a pungent autobiography.
On the face of it, Pierre Berton is as straightforward and candid a Canadian as the country has ever known. In countless books, articles and interviews, he has created the impression of a man who knows what he thinks and says it without hesitation. But when it comes to his personal motives, Berton can be as elusive as any politician. When Maclean’s asked him recently why he wrote the first vol-
ume of his memoirs, Starting Out, he replied with a straight face, “Because I’m a writer. Because I love to write.” Pressed further, he acknowledged that he had promised a book to his publisher this season. His current work in progress, about exploration in Canada’s Arctic, was not yet ready.
As a result, Berton explained, he banged out his memoirs: they needed no research. True enough, no doubt, but the lack of introspection is both intriguing and typical: for all his noted readiness with an opinion, Berton the man remains curiously opaque.
Yet if he dances away from questions that would reveal his private heart, it is the energetic extroversion —and sheer volume—of his writing that has fascinated many Canadians. When writing The National Dream in the late 1960s, he routinely produced 15,000 words a day. Now, he admits to having slowed down to a mere 6,000.
More than any other writer Berton has turned Canadian history, once considered dull, into a pageant as colorful as his famous plaid jackets. But he has no illusions about his accomplishments as a popularizes “I’m not at the front of the parade of progress,” he said. “I’m in the middle. I’m a ‘B’ writer for other ‘B’s.”
That modest self-appraisal underestimates his importance to the country. Berton is one of the prime catalysts of the new Canadian self-confidence that has grown steadily since the Second World War. But his nationalism has always been leavened with a sharp intolerance for the pompous and the false. His joyful iconoclasm is evident as he talks about his new book on the North, which he claims will upset a few cherished ideas. “I’m not impressed with many of the so-called heroes of the Arctic,” he says. “Many of them, especially the British, were fools really.” His many followers can rest assured that at 67, Pierre Berton is still pulling apart Canadian myth—and putting it back together in his own inimitable way.
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