Big Foot of CanLit

Pierre Berton’s latest book establishes him as our Walt Disney, in the best sense, for popularizing our sleepy past

Peter C. Newman October 22 2001

Big Foot of CanLit

Pierre Berton’s latest book establishes him as our Walt Disney, in the best sense, for popularizing our sleepy past

Peter C. Newman October 22 2001

Big Foot of CanLit

Pierre Berton’s latest book establishes him as our Walt Disney, in the best sense, for popularizing our sleepy past

Peter C. Newman

Writing, the 20th century Irish novelist J.P. Donleavy once observed, is “turning ones worst moments into money.” Pierre Berton, whose 47th book, Marching as to War, has just been published, operates on exacdy the opposite impulse. He has spent a productive lifetime turning into marketable and often magnificent prose his best thoughts and feelings about his country, his family, his friends and himself.

His writings celebrate being Canadian, warts and all, and if this latest volume is especially poignant, it’s because it could hardly be more timely. He could not have known, of course, that it would be published just as we are marching off to war yet again, but Berton has a knack for giving history a contemporary sheen.

We have never, he contends, been citizens of a peaceable kingdom. More controversially, he argues that our participation in most of our past conflicts was prompted not by obligation, but because most Canadians wanted to step up to be counted. Canada went to war because the politicians followed the will of the people, not the other way round.

That’s still true. It’s not Jean Chrétiens pathetic rhetoric that has Canadians feeling patriotic, but their instinct that terrorism is the heart of evil.

Berton’s controversial insights make him more than simply a gifted storyteller. He brings to his writing the bias of a social democratic activist, a frequent accessory before the fact in coundess worthy causes. In a country where everyone tries desperately to keep quiet, Pierre Berton has always believed in making noise. In his heyday, there were few public petitions championing liberal ideas that didn’t lead off with his name. He seldom hesitated before pledging his undying loyalty to the most obscure of humanitarian and often socialist crusades, over his portable phone while lounging poolside at his country estate north of Toronto.

The bluster that has marked his daily passage through a crowded lifetime was just that. Bluster. He has always been kindly and generous to everyone except public relations flacks bearing self-inflated messages. Still, Berton’s body language could at times be deafening. Before the congestive heart failure from which he suffers reduced his volume, his knack of emphasizing his convictions with a voice that must have frightened moose, left little room for argument. Passionate and opinionated, he has never been marked by the gloomy introspection of his calling. His Yukon heritage produced not only some of his best books but kept him from becoming a full-fledged member of the Toronto literati and its indulgent, self-obsessed ways. That’s what keeps his focus so clear, and his prose so unpretentious.

When we appeared together at the Vancouver Writers Festival in the fall of 1998, he walked with the aid of a cane, appearing drawn and debilitated. But once we started debating the glories of popular history, he came alive, the energy visibly flowing back into his body, like some proud buck cakewalking in the sun. I knew then that the wellspring of his talent would never run dry—that it might die with him, but never before him.

Marching as to War amply confirms that judgment. At age 81, he is still in top form, and as it happens, on top of the news. It’s a doozer of a book.

Berton’s scathing description of the 1942 raid on Dieppe, which ranks as Canada’s most grievous (and most senseless) defeat of the Second World War, is classic. In relentlessly unravelling the blame for that botched operation, Berton angrily castigates not only the Canadian generals involved (mainly McNaughton and Crerar) but concentrates his fire on Louis Mountbatten, the admiral in charge of Britain’s combined operations, and prime minister Winston Churchill himself.

What makes Berton’s books so valuable and so readable, including this one, is his eye for anecdotes, those tidbits of observable trivia that illuminate human character. His chapter on the shameftd banishment of nearly 18,000 Japanese-Canadians from their homes and businesses begins not with a statistical summary of their losses, but with the story of Toshiko Kurita, a 19-year-old who was quietly walking to her Vancouver home when a white man came up to her and spat full in her face. This book, as most of his others, establishes Berton as our Walt Disney, in the best sense of popularizing our sleepy past and infusing it with the retroactive ring of authenticity.

Deference to established academic authorities has never been his long suit. He has not only survived his academic critics, but bested them. Berton understands better than they that history is made up of individual memories refined, the sequence of encounters between character and circumstance. Canada will always have more geography than history, but we cannot learn to appreciate the former unless we better understand the latter.

As we march off to fight this strange war with a 21st century perverse version of the Flintstones, we should celebrate Pierre Berton’s ongoing accomplishments. The Big Foot of CanLit is truly a national treasure.