Pierre Berton Essay - Critical Essays

Berton, Pierre


Pierre Berton 1920–

(Has also written under pseudonym Lisa Kroniuk.) Canadian journalist, historian, novelist, biographer, satirist, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism of Berton's work through 1997.

One of Canada's best-selling authors, Berton has written over forty books on a wide variety of topics, most notably Canadian history. His historical works have drawn praise from reviewers for their engaging narrative style and their ability to make complex events and issues accessible to readers. Many academic critics, however, have faulted Berton for overdramatizing events and introducing historical inaccuracies, arguing that "serious" historians are overlooked while he "popularizes" history.

Biographical Information

Born July 12, 1920, in Whitehorse, a small town in the Yukon Territory, Pierre Berton spent his childhood in the rugged Canadian frontier. After graduating with a B.A. from the University of British Columbia in 1941, he became Canada's youngest city editor at the Vancouver News-Herald, where he remained for one year before joining the Canadian army. After four years of service, Berton returned to Vancouver, taking a position with the Vancouver Sun as a feature writer. In 1947 he moved to Toronto to work as an assistant editor with Maclean's, where he eventually rose to managing editor, a position he held until 1958. During this time, Berton began producing his first books, including The Mysterious North (1956) and Klondike: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush (1958), both of which earned the Governor General's Literary Award. It was during this time also that Berton began his work in television, eventually becoming a panelist on such programs as Close-Up and Front Page Challenge. When Maclean's objected to his television work, he took a position with the Toronto Star, writing a daily column from 1958 until 1962. Berton collected many of these columns into books such as Just Add Water and Stir (1959), Adventures of a Columnist (1960), and Fast, Fast, Fast Relief (1962). Although he continued his television work after leaving the Star, Berton devoted most of his time to his writing, producing nearly a book a year. Even in his late seventies, Berton continues to publish regularly. He and his wife of over fifty years, the former Janet Walker, live in Kleinburg, Ontario.

Major Works

Berton's histories are characteristically easy-reading narratives that utilize an anecdotal approach. His most notable works, such as Klondike, The Last Spike (1971), and his books on the War of 1812, focus on the development of Canada during the nineteenth century. Central in that development is the birth of a Canadian national identity, which Berton feels is essential considering Canada's proximity to the United States. Berton makes clear the importance of differentiation between American and Canadian cultural makeup in Hollywood's Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image (1975), in which he criticizes the depiction of Canada in film, and Why We Act Like Canadians: A Personal Exploration of Our National Character (1982). Some of Berton's other works include collections of articles from his days as a journalist, a children's book, and a novel, written under the pseudonym Lisa Kroniuk, about sexual fantasies.

Critical Reception

Most of Berton's books have met with enormous popular appeal. Credited with creating a "new Canadian mythology," his historical accounts have made Canadian history accessible to a mass audience by presenting exhaustive research in a readable narrative. Many academic critics, however, fault Berton's work for some historical inaccuracies and the "publicity hype" it has received, claiming that work done by "serious" historians is overlooked as a result. In response to their attempts to distinguish between "popular" history and "serious" history, Berton responds, "History is history. Good history is good history. I don't make any distinctions." These detractors, however, have admitted that Berton's work is well written, and credit it for striking a "deeply responsive chord in Canada's reading public."

Principal Works

The Mysterious North (nonfiction) 1956
Klondike: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush (history) 1958
Just Add Water and Stir (nonfiction) 1959
Adventures of a Columnist (nonfiction) 1960
The Secret World of Og (juvenile) 1961
Fast, Fast, Fast Relief (nonfiction) 1962
The Last Spike (history) 1971
Hollywood's Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image (nonfiction) 1975
The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama (nonfiction) 1977
The Invasion of Canada, 1812–1813 (history) 1980
Flames Across the Border: The Canadian-American Tragedy, 1813–1814 (history) 1981
Why We Act Like Canadians: A Personal Exploration of Our National Character (nonfiction) 1982
Masquerade (novel) 1985
Vimy (history) 1986
Starting Out, volume 1: 1920–1947 (autobiography) 1987
My Times: Living With History, 1947–1995 (autobiography) 1995
The Great Lakes (nonfiction) 1997

∗This book was published under the pseudonym Lisa Kroniuk.


Trevor Lloyd (review date 26 February 1956)

SOURCE: "Polar Challenge and Assault," in The New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1956, pp. 7, 27.

[In the following review, Lloyd provides a brief summary of Berton's The Mysterious North.]

To many people there is a perplexing similarity between the Arctic and Antarctic. Both come to mind as a mélange of ice and snow, penguins, polar bears, sledge dogs, blizzards, Eskimos, igloos and pack-ice and as the goal of infrequent but invariably heroic polar expeditions. Giant ice-breakers leave Boston for one in April and for the other in October, so that by some freak of geography we are provided with frigid and harrowing reports on a year-round basis.

All such confusion should now cease, even for readers who get no farther than the wrappers of these two excellent books. The jacket of Pierre Berton's The Mysterious North shows a mine shaft, a grinning native dance mask, a reindeer and a compass needle pointing steadfastly to the north, all superimposed on a map of Canada. By contrast, The Antarctic Challenged is wrapped in a photograph of ice floes, with a few barely distinguishable seals drowsing in the foreground. The striking antithesis is a fair one. Today, the Far North is a constantly broadening economic frontier, fairly bursting with activity. The Far South is five million square miles of ice-encrusted land surrounded by ice-filled seas.

Lord Mountevans in The Antarctic Challenged sets out to relate the story of Antarctic exploration in nontechnical language, and in this he succeeds admirably. His sixteen chapters provide an introduction to the geography and wildlife of the Far South, and summarize the most important expeditions that have visited the region in the last 170 years. All the great names, from Capt. James Cook to Admiral Richard E. Byrd are met with, and the author often uses their own accounts to highlight his narrative. Speaking of Antarctica, which he had sailed around but barely seen, Cook, who was once a Yorkshire grocer's apprentice, said with his customary terseness: "To judge the bulk by the sample, it would not be worth the discovery"—and many later explorers have agreed with him.

Yet the author shows that this forlorn and blizzard-swept land has attracted more than its share of great men, commemorated in such names as...

(The entire section is 975 words.)

Bruce Hutchison (review date 10 March 1956)

SOURCE: "From Yukon to Ungava," in The Saturday Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 10, March 10, 1956, p. 20.

[In the following review, Hutchison praises The Mysterious North as an engaging work of nonfiction.]

As a skilled professional reporter and a reckless amateur of exploration Pierre Berton has written in The Mysterious North a book with an unusual, perhaps a unique, virtue in its field: it sees the Canadian North whole. Many other books have examined parts of it in greater detail. Few if any, can have surveyed it in such a wide sweep and engaging style.

No such survey would have been possible in a single life-time before the day of the...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

Mordecai Richler (review date 12 November 1972)

SOURCE: A review of The Impossible Railway, in The New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1972, p. 48.

[In the following review, Richler calls The Impossible Railway a "considerable triumph," praising Berton for his ability to make a complex story "readable."]

Canada, threatened within by French Canadian separatists and without by rampaging American investment, is presently in a truculent and soul-searching mood. Its writers, their nationalist zeal often outstripping their talent, are bent on mythmaking. Turned inward, they are prospecting the past for those heroic tales that helped forge the nation or at least define how it differs from the other,...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Jeff Greenfield (review date 10 December 1978)

SOURCE: "Quint-Hype," in The New York Times Book Review, December 10, 1978, p. 16.

[In the following review, Greenfield provides a brief summary of The Dionne Years.]

To a generation surrounded by worldwide depression, poverty and the rise of fascism, the birth of the Dionne quintuplets in May 1934 was less a curious diversion than a badly needed affirmation of the human spirit. From a farmhouse in northern Ontario, news of the birth of the five identical infants, each weighing little more than a pound, gradually spread worldwide to become the biggest story of the decade. Everyone within reach of newspapers, radio and movie newsreels knew of Oliva and Elzire Dionne; of...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

C. P. Stacey (review date August-September 1980)

SOURCE: A review of The Invasion of Canada, Volume One: 1812–13, in Books in Canada, Vol. 9, No. 7, August-September, 1980, pp. 7-8.

[In the following review, Stacey addresses a number of shortcomings in Berton's The Invasion of Canada, claiming that "as a history of the war [it] leaves much to be desired."]

Pierre Berton does not tell us just why he has undertaken to write what is clearly going to be quite a long book on the War of 1812. One more book, one might say; for there is a large literature on this war and historians and near-historians have produced a good many books and articles about it in recent years. Inevitably, Berton is threshing old...

(The entire section is 1291 words.)

John Yohalem (review date 22 February 1981)

SOURCE: A review of The Invasion of Canada, Volume One: 1812–13, in The new York Times Book Review, February 22, 1981, pp. 18-19.

[In the following brief review, Yohalem credits Breton for providing a "rousing" historical novel.]

Pierre Berton, a Canadian journalist with 18 works of nonfiction to his credit, writes popular history as it should more often be written, exciting but carefully documented, in a clear, somewhat classical style. His subject is our (but not Canada's) most pointless war, the War of 1812, a tragicomedy of bungled maneuvers and fouled communications carried out with a farcical gentility that soon degenerated into savagery.


(The entire section is 414 words.)

George Woodcock (review date October 1981)

SOURCE: "Berton's Judgements on the Horror of War," in Quill & Quire, Vol. 47, No. 10, October, 1981, p. 33.

[In the following review, Woodcock claims that Berton has "passed the test for good history writing" by providing a "richer, deeper, and … truer" view of the War of 1812.]

The real shape or intent of a book is never truly revealed to us until we have read the last chapter or, in longer works, the final volume. And it is near the end of Flames Across the Border, 1813–1814, the second part of his account of the War of 1812, that one really recognizes what differentiates Pierre Berton's kind of history from the works of most academic historians. It...

(The entire section is 967 words.)

Lorna Irvine (essay date Spring 1986)

SOURCE: "The Real Mr. Canada," in Canadian Literature, No. 108, Spring, 1986, pp. 68-79.

[In the following essay, Irvine discusses Berton's development of a "Canadian approach to the confidence game tradition that so dominates the folklore and culture of the United States."]

Early in July of 1985, Pierre Berton staged a game of "To Tell the Truth" at an apparently typical press party. The mystery guests were three women in masks; the panelists, Canadian historian William Kilbourn, Dinah Christie, and Berton himself. The object of the game was to discover which of the three women was Lisa Kroniuk, the author of Masquerade: Fifteen Variations on a Theme of Sexual...

(The entire section is 4296 words.)

Desmond Morton (review date November 1986)

SOURCE: "Tainted Victory," in Books in Canada, Vol. 15, No. 8, November 1986, pp. 21-3.

[In the following review, Morton criticizes Vimy, stating that it is "laden with errors and inaccuracies."]

Nations, claimed the French historian Ernest Renan, are not created by speaking the same language or even by occupying the same territory. They are made by people who have done great things together in the past and who expect to do great things together in the future.

Even at the time, the Canadians who captured Vimy Ridge in 1917 knew that they had done a great thing. The bodies of close to 50,000 French and British soldiers who had died in earlier...

(The entire section is 1005 words.)

Christopher Moore (review date November 1988)

SOURCE: "Of Ice and Men," in Books in Canada, Vol. 17, No. 8, November, 1988, p. 30.

[In the following excerpt, Moore cites a number of Berton's "strengths" as a historian, but notes that "a few sloppinesses have crept in" to The Arctic Grail.]

The North West Passage, for all practical purposes, did not exist—that much was clear by 1700. But in 1818 the Royal Navy had run out of other navies to fight, and it decided to take on the North. The pursuit of what Pierre Berton calls the "Arctic Grail" began.

Seeking the elusive passage, the navy found a maze of icechoked channels where big naval vessels were the worst possible vehicle of exploration. Yet...

(The entire section is 782 words.)

Charles Davies (review date November 1988)

SOURCE: "Death in the North," in Quill & Quire, Vol. 54, No. 11, November, 1988, p. 2.

[In the following review, Davies focuses on Berton's depiction of Sir John Franklin in The Arctic Grail.]

Judging by appearances, there was never a less likely hero than Sir John Franklin. For most of his adult life Franklin was balding, overweight, and out of shape. He struck his fellow officers in the Royal Navy as being overly sensitive. He winced at floggings—a fairly common occurrence in 19th century naval service—and he fared poorly in confrontational situations. "Chicanery made him ill," his son-in-law, Philip Gell, would later write, "and so paralysed him that when he...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Roland Huntford (review date 20 November 1988)

SOURCE: "Going to Extremes," in The New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1988, pp. 1, 44-5.

[In the following review, Huntford provides an overview of Breton's The Arctic Grail, praising it as a "highly readable compendium of northern exploration."]

The view from space has made familiar the image of the world; but within living memory, its surface was still imperfectly known. The polar regions were the last great blanks upon the map, and the 19th century was haunted by the drive to fill them in. Since the Arctic was more accessible, that is where attempts were concentrated first. These events coalesce into an intricate saga which it is the purpose of this...

(The entire section is 1577 words.)

Chauncey Loomis (review date 21 December 1989)

SOURCE: "Heavy Sledding," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, December 21, 1989, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Loomis notes Berton's eye for detail and his ability to make difficult material appealing to readers.]

In the 19th century, Canada's Arctic Archipelago proved to be an explorer's nightmare, a maze of straits, channels, gulfs, inlets, sounds, shoals, peninsulas and islands that confounded even the best navigators. Looking at its jigsaw configurations on a modern map, we can understand why its uncharted straits and channels were often mistaken by the pessimistic for dead-end inlets, its inlets by the optimistic for straits and channels—its islands for...

(The entire section is 3099 words.)

Victor Dwyer (review date 10 September 1990)

SOURCE: "Look Back in Anger," in Maclean's, Vol. 103, No. 37, September 10, 1990, pp. 79-80.

[In the following review, Dwyer praises The Great Depression, 1929 to 1939, stating that it is "arguably [Berton's] best book."]

After producing 35 titles, and at the venerable age of 70, Pierre Berton has written his first angry book. Canada's most-read author has taken on the Great Depression, and the project has made him furious. "It's my first book that really made me mad as I wrote it," he said in an interview. "I suddenly realized that a lot of what happened back then was appalling. It was a surprise, and I think that helped me to write a better book." Berton's...

(The entire section is 1828 words.)

Anna Chiota (review date 1992)

SOURCE: "Berton's Canadian History," in Canadian Children's Literature, No. 67, 1992, pp. 75-7.

[In the following review, Chiota discusses the value of Breton's work as an academic resource for students.]

Two of a four part set, these titles feature the events and people involved in military confrontations along the Great Lakes border during the War of 1812. Canada Under Siege covers the attacks on York and Fort George, the battles of Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams, and the legendary walk of Laura Secord. Revenge of the Tribes highlights the events and attitudes that prompted the Indians to throw their support and force behind the Canadian and British...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

Robert Nicholas Bérard (review date 1993)

SOURCE: "At Once Too Staid and Melodramatic: Berton's Canadian History," in Canadian Children's Literature, No. 69, 1993, pp. 40-2.

[In the following review, Bérard criticizes Berton's work as too detail-oriented to serve as good historical fiction, and too melodramatic to serve as a key source for historical analysis.]

These two books are the first in a series of "Adventures in Canadian History" to be written for McClelland & Stewart by Pierre Berton. A third volume devoted to the War of 1812, The Revenge of the Tribes, has also been published, as well as three additional titles, dealing with the opening of the West and the North. The publishers have, no...

(The entire section is 1048 words.)

Eric Henderson (review date 1993)

SOURCE: "Footnotes in Canadian History," in Canadian Children's Literature, No. 72, 1993, pp. 78-80.

[In the following review, Henderson criticizes Berton's Canadian historical series for children, arguing that many of the titles deal with events and issues only marginally significant in Canadian history.]

Pierre Berton's series of popular history books for twelve-to fourteen-year-olds, "Adventures in Canadian History," keeps expanding, even as their "Canadian content" shrinks. While earlier titles in the series chronicled significant moments in the building of a nation (notably Berton's four books on The War of 1812), some of the more recent ones have had little to do...

(The entire section is 947 words.)

Anne Denoon (review date November 1995)

SOURCE: "The Great Recycler," in Books in Canada, Vol. 24, pp. 29, 32.

[In the following brief review, Denoon notes some "minor irritants" in the second volume of Berton's autobiography, but states that they are "counterbalanced" by "snappy writing."]

Pierre Berton's sixtieth published book picks up where Starting Out, his first volume of autobiography left off, and begins with his arrival in Toronto in 1947. The postwar metropolis he evokes in My Times was still essentially the Good, with delusions of worldclassness decades away. The journalistic band Berton joined may seem equally quaint to younger readers: an alcohol-fuelled, almost all-male,...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Stephen Smith (review date July 1996)

SOURCE: "Berton's Really Not Funny," in Quill & Quire, July, 1996, p. 50.

[In the following brief review, Smith criticizes Berton's failed attempts at satire in Farewell to the Twentieth Century: A Compendium of the Absurd.]

What I was going to do was make a humorous approach to Pierre Berton's purportedly funny Farewell to the Twentieth Century: A Compendium of the Absurd. What I had in mind was a piece poking jocosely at the book's general—what to call it?—imperfection, showing by clever example that this was a balloon that never had any air in it, and how sad is that? Light on the feet, quick to the point, winkish in a benevolent way that said...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Further Reading

Blodgett, E. D. "After Pierre Berton What? In Search of a Canadian Literature." Essays on Canadian Writing 30 (Winter 1984–85): 60-80.

Discusses Canadian literature as a distinct field of study.

(The entire section is 62 words.)