Being asked to write about Berton 'is like being asked to explain the Rockies'

WILL FERGUSON December 13 2004


Being asked to write about Berton 'is like being asked to explain the Rockies'

WILL FERGUSON December 13 2004


Being asked to write about Berton 'is like being asked to explain the Rockies'



IT WAS ONE of those summer evenings where the darkness sneaks up on you. The kind of evening where the details dissolve almost imperceptibly, where you find yourself reduced to silhouettes and disembodied voices, spectral stories.

“Do you see those trees?” he said, referring to the sweep of forest outlined against the sky. “I planted every one of them. This was just an open field when I started.”

I had been invited to the home of Pierre and Janet Berton in Kleinburg,

Ont., for a night of steak and sushi.

Thick slabs of sirloin had been thrown onto the barbecue, and Pierre poured

me a slosh of hooch (to use the proper Bertonian turn of phrase). The sushi was wrapped in light seaweed and steeped in sweet vinegar. It was an odd, yet oddly satisfying, combination.

Pierre was 82 at the time, but still on his feet: tall, indomitable. Janet was a wonderfully gracious host: warm, wry, very funny. She had raised eight children while her husband was stabbing away at his typewriter with two fingers.

Being asked to write a tribute to Pierre Berton is like being asked to explain the Rockies. I almost balked—out of respect for his memory. How do you do the man justice? I could hardly add to his stature. What I can do, though, is express my gratitude to him. As a writer, as a Canadian, I owe him an immense and abiding debt.

Pierre Berton showed me a Canada that was worthy of passion. Even when I disagreed with his conclusions—such as in Why We Act

Like Canadians—l never doubted his commitment. Pierre Berton rescued Canadian history from Canadian historians. Or rather, he rescued it from a certain narrow, academic view of what history should be. He understood, better than anyone, that history is a literary form, not a social science. It was not enough to explain the past, one had to evoke it. The Klondike. The War of 1812. The search for the “Arctic grail.” Pierre’s writing was always grounded in solid research and primary sources, without ever becoming bogged down. He was many things, but he was never boring.

When I try to read academic books

about the Great Depression, my eyes glaze over. But when Pierre Berton writes about the Depression, I can actually sec the dust storms rolling in, can taste them, can feel the anger and mounting despair of the people.

Pierre Berton came from a journalistic background, and his earlier books—The Comfortable Pew, The Smug Minority—were searing polemics. He was never a defender of the status quo, and when I mentioned to him that according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the term “shit disturber” is a Canadianism, he seemed inordinately pleased by this. It was a label he himself wore proudly and one which, I’m sure, he would have preferred to “national icon.”

As we sat outside that evening, sawing away at our steaks, I remember asking him if he believed in ghosts and he said, “No... but I believe in ghost stories.” He also shared one piece of advice

he often gave to anyone thinking of becoming a writer: “Try to be born in an interesting place.” In Pierre’s case, it was the Yukon and the faded glories of the gold rush.

“I followed your advice as best I could,” I told him. “I arranged to be born in the fur trading post of Fort Vermilion, closer to the Arctic Circle than the American border.” When I was growing up, Canada was a southern country, far beyond the curve of the horizon. “At some level,” I said, “I have always felt that I emigrated to Canada.”

“Oh, I know the feeling,” he said. “You never really leave the North, do you?”

HE SHOWED mea Canada worthy of passion. Even when I disagreed with him, I never doubted his commitment.’

ONE OF MY SON’S favourite books is The Secret World ofOg. It was probably Pierre’s bestloved work, and it had been one of my alltime favourites as a boy. When I mentioned this to Pierre he said, in the breeziest and most offhanded way you can imagine, “I suppose you would like to see the playhouse?”

I almost fell over. This was like being asked if I wanted to see the wardrobe from Narnia

or the looking glass from Alice. Suddenly I was six years old again, and giddy. “Really? The playhouse?”

“Sure,” he said. “It’s just down the hill.”

The story of Og begins in a children’s playhouse, when a handsaw cuts a trap door in the floor and a baby is whisked away into an elaborate underground world of green creatures whose entire language consists of one word: “Og.” Sure enough, nestled near a stand of trees was the very playhouse I’d read about. Weathered, but still standing. I peered in through the window, looking for the doorway to the World of Og and then said, more to myself than anyone, “There’s no trap door.”

Pierre looked at me. “It was just a story. You do know that, right?”

I’VE DECI DED, in lieu of any evidence to the contrary, that my family and I occupy the same house Pierre Berton did when he was in the army. This isn’t far-fetched. Our neighbourhood was once part of Calgary’s Currie Barracks, and our house was once a military residence. They’ve added a verandah and tarted it up, but the original frames and floor plan—sturdy, no-nonsense—are still evident.

“The old Currie base?” Pierre said. “Hell, that’s where I was stationed. It was out at the edge of town, and if we missed the last streetcar, we had to hike up that damn hill.”

He shook his head in amazement when I told him that his old army base has (a) been gentrified and (b) is now considered a “central” neighbourhood. Pierre described the lanes and the very building

where he had once bunked, and it sounded vaguely like the street I’m on, so what the hell. As far as I’m concerned, the matter is settled: it’s Pierre’s house; I just live in it.

THE LAST TIME I saw Pierre Berton was at Book Expo 2004 in Toronto, where he was being honoured for the publication of his 50th book, Prisoners of the North. Douglas

Coupland and I had invited Pierre out for a drink afterwards—a symbolic drink, as it were, since Pierre was no longer allowed to imbibe. I was looking forward to getting the three of us together; it would have made for a terrific “Canadiana round table.” But Pierre’s health took a turn for the worse and he wasn’t able to go anywhere after his event. He was in a wheelchair at that point, on his way back to Kleinburg and Janet.

“We’ll get together again next time,” he said. But there never will be a next time.

I want to carve an epitaph on the mountains, I want to write it on the last light of day: Pierre Berton lived here. Husband. Father. Storyteller. Shit disturber. Prisoner of the North.