Thursday, May 26, 2011

DR. NORMAN BETHUNE - "PHOENIX" removes 71 years of clouded varnish, revealing details of a passionate life, boldly lived

I work with high school and university students and I often obsess over the ideas they are choosing to believe. What they are taught by others, I can do nothing about, but over the past week I found myself ragging on faux memoirs ("Creative non-fiction") and lying documentary films that frequently arise in conversation. Al Gore's prose and Moore's Bowling for Columbine were typical exhibits. Be assured that after I demolish a fraudulent work I follow through, recommending trustworthy examples of a given genre. For an astonishingly candid memoir which avoids contrivance I read passages from J.R. Ackerley's MY FATHER AND MYSELF. For courageous documentary minus the smart-ass gimmickry, I showed clips from DELIVER US FROM EVIL, by Mathew Cooke.

Most students are waiting for the launch of the latest cellular gadget or fresh fodder for their game console. Part of my job is to get them to read good books. Call me 'old school' but my binoculars are trained on publishers, as I wait for important books I need to perfect my knowledge of this great country. These days, the really interesting books are being published by Canada's university presses. A fabulous example of what a tireless pair of biographers can accomplish is PHOENIX: The Life of Norman Bethune, just released by McGill-Queen's University Press. My interest in Bethune is not casual. I have all of the previous biographies and have researched him in archives. Memory convinces me that I first learned of his importance to our national history when, about 30 years ago, I joined a group of friends at U.N.B. in screening an NFB film on Canadian Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Since then I have collected much of what was published about Bethune. I knew PHOENIX had been completed, and I must thank McGill publicist Jacqui Davis for sending me a review copy.

PHOENIX: The Life of Norman Bethune was published this month by McGill-Queen's University Press. An engaging story and a trustworthy biography, it was written by Roderick Stewart and Sharon Stewart. This book will ennoble your bookshelf many years after lesser possessions have been donated to charity. Its in hard covers, 488 pages with 77 photos. $39.95 [ISBN 978-0-7735-3819-1] It's already available discounted on AMAZON.CA

Why would you enjoy reading this book, and why should you read it? Happily, I deduce that PHOENIX was created with the intention of finding a wide readership. Rod Stewart is a crack researcher who has devoted much of his life to understanding Bethune's ache for adventure, both in bed and on the battlefield. As well he has a deep understanding of the complexities of Bethune's political commitments. Clearly his writing partner, Sharon Stewart, brought energy and polish to the project because this new book is a major improvement on Stewart's first attempt at capturing his subject (BETHUNE, 1973). In an earlier biography Mr. Stewart could only hint at the petty jealousy and careerism inside Canadian Communist circles which clearly sabotaged Dr. Bethune's efforts in Spain and China. In PHOENIX we see the tragedy of each cynical betrayal, closely documented. But more, for the first time we learn how his mind worked, and why he stubbornly made each of the fateful decisions which lead to his lonely and needless death inside China in 1939. He contracted blood poisoning while performing surgery on a badly wounded Red soldier, and when the infection threatened to claim his own life, he refused amputation of his arm. He was assured that there was much work he could do for the Red Army as a one-armed doctor, but still he chose death. Why?

In BETHUNE (1973) Stewart's explanation was very thin: "Bethune refused. He knew he was going to die." But in PHOENIX (2011) the Stewart's are more intimate and help us understand a dying man's motives. For Dr. Norman Bethune "...amputation would have meant that he would never again have been able to function as a battlefield surgeon. And surgery was to him more than just a profession; in its drama and incisiveness it was the expression of his way of life, his mode of being. Despite his passionate commitment to communism and to the Chinese struggle against the Japanese, he refused to consent to becoming less than he wanted to be."

How refreshing to read the work of professional biographers who understand how to tell a great story well without resorting to fraud. While this book can certainly be read quickly and for enjoyment alone, I am one of those who also relies on books for my facts. I read with my thumb squashed by the fold between the story and its documentation - the Notes, Bibliography and Index. I also compare a new book to its predecessors.

Up till now, for good or ill, the most widely read biography of Norman Bethune was Ted Allan's clunker THE SCALPEL, THE SWORD (1952) a work of naked plagiarism, stamped with the dubious hallmarks of "Creative non-fiction" including plenty of fabricated dialogue. Want a comparative taste of Allan? Here is his rendition of the death scene: "Bethune shook his head. "No, Fong," he said in a feeble voice. "I'd give both my arms to live, tungtze. But it is no longer a matter of the arm. It's in the blood. Septicemia. Nothing can help me."

In assessing Allan's half century old book the Stewart's are kinder than they need to be, as Allan had a reputation for suing everyone he thought he could bully. The truth is his book should be weeded from every library in Canada and replaced with this franker, and certainly better written biography. If you are going to read ANY biography this summer, pick up a copy of PHOENIX, and let the Stewart's tell you the story of a Canadian who made a greater impact on this world than most of those in our celebrity obsessed culture dare dream. Hey, only Shatner tops Bethune for a single name Canadian brand!

Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune, a Communist and a hedonist, has been a staple of popular culture since his death in China. Radio dramas, stage plays, movies, postage stamps, coins, a television series, novels, biographies, posters, colouring books and (above) the cover of a vintage war comic book, published in 1943.

Dr. Norman Bethune, like many of our national hero's, was obsessed with ensuring that Canada got "credit" for it's contributions on the world stage. In that respect he was uber-Canadian. He attended Canadian Club luncheons and fully understood the symbolism of VIMY in Canadian affairs. In BETHUNE (1973) Rod Stewart noted that Beth "was always looking for recognition". In the Spanish Civil War he fussed over the image and publicity given to the battlefield blood transfusion service he pioneered. He didn't want to be "sent" to Spain in 1937 like other nameless volunteers, fearing that he "would simply go into a hospital as a surgeon and that would be the end of the Canadian Unit as a Unit! Now it seemed better to emulate England and Scotland and establish ourselves as a definate entity. England has the "English Hospital", Scotland has the "Scottish Ambulance." Dr. Bethune is here delightfully modeled in the blue mono azul overalls he designed for "the unit" and had custom fabricated in London. Missing is the badge "CANADA" which was stitched on a breast pocket. .

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