Trevor Lloyd (review date 26 February 1956)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975

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

Illustration of PDF document

Download Pierre Berton Study Guide

Subscribe Now

[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 Wilkes' Land, Bellinghausen Sea, Ross Shelf Ice and Mawson. There, too, are patches of "holy ground" such as Little America, first seen by Sir James Clark Ross in 1841, revisited by Capt. Robert F. Scott sixty years later, named "Bay of Whales" by Shackleton and still later used by Roald Amundsen as the base "Framheim" from which he launched his successful assault on the South Pole.

Lord Mountevans has many advantages as an historian of the Antarctic, not the least that he combines personal experience gained half a century ago with long study of the very different ways of modern polar travelers, for whom he has the highest regard. During the next two years, world-wide attention will focus on Antarctica, where a coordinated scientific assault is to be made by expeditions from a dozen nations. The Antarctic Challenged provides fine background reading for this, and is all the better for being written in the breezy style of the sailor, and with broad international sympathy all too often absent from histories of the polar regions.

Pierre Berton is a second-generation sourdough, born in the Yukon and schooled in its pioneer ways, but now managing editor of Maclean's Magazine. That he has not allowed his Toronto surroundings to obscure his love of the North is revealed by a photograph which shows him dressed in a fur-rimmed parka and with a week's stubble on his face. His book is an astonishingly comprehensive and thoroughly reliable account of northern Canada today, and it is very entertainingly written.

The Mysterious North rolls back the northern frontier in a region by region description. Here are semi-technical discussions of permafrost, gabbro, drumlins, glaciers and the like, along with a guided tour to "Headless Valley," the story of a mad trapper, accounts of hair-raising rescues by bush pilots and a tale from days not so long ago when an Eskimo was free to expedite his ancient mother-in-law on her way to the Hereafter.

The book is far more than a potpourri of travelers' tales from North of 53. It contains a systematic account of the resources of the far North and the problems that confront those who endeavor to exploit them. Missionaries, traders, administrators, miners and not least the native Indians and Eskimos have played a part in the minor revolution of the past decade. Clearly the days of fur-trapping as a basic means of livelihood are ending, while mining does not yet provide an adequate alternative. Still minerals such as oil, uranium, gold and iron, now being mined profitably, probably hold the key to the future.

Perhaps the deciding factor in development of the North will not be its undoubted resources but the accident of location between the United States and the Soviet Union. Because of this, three radar screens are being built between Alaska and the Atlantic, and one of them, the Distant Early Warning Line, has in the last year started the biggest northern boom of all time. Its construction has already called for immense tonnages of air freight, including 50,000-pound roadgraders dropped by parachute, and the author reports that Coca-Cola now flows as freely in the Arctic as ice water.

This massive assault on a largely unexplored region will assuredly end, in one way or another, the many problems surrounding the future of the native people, some of whom still live close to the Stone Age. Now there will be work and plenty for every Eskimo who can adjust himself to eating hamburgers, driving tractors and working a forty-hour week. The Antarctic Challenge and The Mysterious North are provided with good maps and with many splendid photographs.

Bruce Hutchison (review date 10 March 1956)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706

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 airplane. Mr. Berton has used automobiles, trains, horses, dogsleds, and his own legs on various side journeys, but for the most part he has flown, dropping down at any place which seemed to promise interesting copy. The result is a mural stretched from the Yukon to Ungava, a painting of bold brush strokes, gaudy background colors, and some rare human figures in the foreground.

For this formidable undertaking the author was equipped by his birth in Whitehorse, his youth in the dwindling gold town of Dawson City, the perpetual travels of his manhood as a magazine writer, and, most of all, by his passionate love of the North.

A boy who grew up next door to Robert W. Service and floated down the Yukon River with his parents almost before he could walk thought of the North as a single piece, centered around the gutted placer fields of the Klondike. But he has found that there really is no North, except as a geographical expression, that dozens of separate climates, terrains, and races occupy an unimaginable area where Texas or the British Isles could be stowed away unnoticed. To speak of the North as a single region, the author says, is like lumping Scotland and Serbia together because both belong to Europe. In fact the mountainous Yukon, the oozing Mackenzie River basin, the rusty Labrador Peninsula, with its hills of iron, or the glistening fjords of Baffin Island might be on separate continents. They are unified only by the nationality of Canada and imaginary lines of latitude.

Variety is one part of the northern mystery but only one part. All travelers have felt, like Mr. Berton, the mystery of the land itself, its beauty, brutality, and loneliness. Few have equaled his descriptive talents. His pen makes the mystery palpable and appalling.

Still deeper is the mystery of human life throughout the North now in process of rapid change, thanks to the airplane. All the familiar figures of fiction appear in this factual book—the starving trapper, the mad prospector, the devoted missionary, the happy Eskimo, the tragic Indian—and many unlikely newcomers who in a few remote mining towns and military bases, are importing civilization overnight by air.

Mr. Berton's swarming narrative is enlivened by a series of unknown epics, the adventures of nameless men and not a few of the author's own narrow escapes—for example, his mad flight into Headless Valley, which was long described as a tropical oasis and haunt of homicidal stone-age Indians but turned out to be perhaps the finest mountain and river scenery on the continent, innocent of any habitation.

If he has a strong anecdotal talent and knows how to bring obscure characters to life, Mr. Berton knows how to invoke the grandeur and the history of the planet's northern slope.

The reader who is interested in the geological story of this land, the emergence of America's highest mountains, the rise of its largest inland seas, the advance and retreat of the ice, the deposit of oil in the vast central plateau and minerals throughout the horseshoe of the Precambrian Shield, will find it told here in layman's language. The armchair explorer will confront spectacles beyond the reach of the camera.

The book is chiefly valuable, however, as a total assessment of the North in all its aspects, by an accomplished writer and a Northern man. Since the economic gravity of Canada and the defense system of America are now tilting northward in Russia's direction Mr. Berton's report is not only a lively record of travel but a timely social document.

Mordecai Richler (review date 12 November 1972)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 753

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, sometimes insufferably overshadowing, America.

In this, as in any stake-claiming race, many of the searchers, ill-equipped, are inevitably panning fool's gold. Others are salting shallow pit-heads, inflating the stock for nationalistic consumption. But a few are surfacing with valuable, even essential, mythological ore.

Among them, the indefatigable Pierre Berton is unexcelled. Following Klondike, his compulsive account of the gold rush, he has struck an even richer vein a veritable bonanza, with The Impossible Railway, the saga, richly detailed (yet never at the sacrifice of its narrative drive) of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. A marvelous story in its own right, something of a cliffhanger, it anticipates, as Berton readily grasps without belaboring the point, the major problem that bedevils Canada even now: American domination.

The Canadian Pacific Railway, the longest in the world, was undertaken in 1871, when Canada was only four shaky years old, its population no more than four million. Its construction, initially promised in order to lure British Columbia, then still a colony, into the new Confederation, was the surpassing vision of a brilliant, charming, but alcoholic Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald. It was also almost his ruin, temporarily washing him out of office on a wave of bribery and swindles, culminating in the Pacific Scandal.

The railway remained essential, however, if Canada, comprised of isolated settlements with conflicting interests, was to be knit into a nation. It was, like Sir John A. himself, resurrected. It had to be built if it were to become possible for Canadians to journey from Atlantic to Pacific without being obliged to dip dependently into the United States.

It was impractical, a seemingly economic enterprise, ever teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, and threatening to sink the Government with it. But it was also absolutely necessary if Canada was to opt for true independence, piercing impassable Selkirks, and so transforming itself from a nest of settlements on the St. Lawrence lowlands into a nation that spanned two oceans. And Sir John A., a Yankee hater born, was determined that it would be an all-Canadian enterprise. "We shall not be trampled upon and ridden over," he declared, "as we have been in the past, by foreign capitalists."

And yet—and yet—though this impossible project was dominated by the industrious Scots of Montreal, the unrivaled manipulators of the great banks and financial houses, it was seen through, all along the line, by American contractors. They were the engineers.

And, in a tale that abounds with outsize characters, Rocky Mountain surveyors of astonishing courage and eccentricity, imaginative financiers with unflinching nerve, adventurers, opportunists, and even a saintly French Canadian priest, the largest and easily the most important is the American engineer of German and Dutch extraction, William Cornelius Van Horne, who did in fact eventually become a Canadian, and was knighted in 1894. The fascinating Van Horne was rather more than the driving, ebullient engineer who, miraculously, built the 2,500 mile railway in less than five years. He was also a gourmet, all-night poker player, violinist and astute geologist. A most appealing Victorian. Years after the railway was completed, he said: "I get all I can; I drink all I can; I smoke all I can, and I don't give a damn for anything."

It is Pierre Berton's considerable triumph that, working from primary sources, unpublished diaries, and letters as well as public documents, he has rendered a horrendously complex story so readable, moving with ease from Parliament Hill to the Riel Rebellion, from the boardrooms of financial houses to the end of track, where the Irish navvies, the Swedes, the French-Canadian and Chinese coolies were being conned by camp following whiskey-peddlers and whores.

If the building of the C.P.R. is a story rich in political chicanery, sharp dealing and profiteering, it is, for all that, heroic. One of the great railway and nation-building stories told, warts and all, with the gusto it so richly deserves.

Jeff Greenfield (review date 10 December 1978)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

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 Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, who fulfilled the dream of Charlie Brown's Linus by becoming "a world-famous humble country doctor"; of every change of weight and strength.

The quints, however, were more than a fascinating story. They were a marketable, multimillion-dollarcommodity. The Chicago World's Fair wanted them as an exhibit, to hype disappointing attendance. Manufacturers and advertisers wanted them to help them sell milk, clothing, baby food. Newspapers, magazines, newsreel and motion picture companies wanted them as celebrities. And ordinary citizens, by the hundreds of thousands, wanted to see them in person. There was, then, a worldwide public hunger for "quint-hype" and a series of mechanisms eager to profit from the feeding of that hunger. The depressing, inevitable result of this mix is the subject of this riveting book, which is a fair-minded yet inspiring look at massive media hype.

The tale told by Pierre Berton, a Canadian writer and broadcaster, strains credulity; it is as if Richard Condon had superseded his own generous limits of plausibility. The quints were removed from the care of their uneducated French-Canadian parents and raised for nine years in a nursery-compound that attracted enough tourists to save Ontario from bankruptcy. The press that attacked the Dionne parents for cashing in on their fame built up Dr. Dafoe as a humanitarian indifferent to wealth and fame, even as the doctor was pulling down enormous fees for speaking around the nation. The care of the quints became part of the French-English conflict in Canada, until the English-speaking Dafoe was removed from his role as one of their guardians and the quints returned to their parents—to what they later called "the saddest home we have ever known. The unhappy fate of the three surviving quints—one is amazed to find that both they and their parents are still alive—seems to have been dictated by the circumstances of their birth and fame.

It is tempting to say that such an event could not occur today; that we are far more sophisticated in the ways of media hype. Let us look to the list of forthcoming books and movies, to the shelves of books by Watergate conspirators, sexual deviates of every calling, soon-to-be-heard Son of Sam tapes—and ask how well we have coped with the power of the media machine to shape and ruin human beings by its sheer omnipresence.

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1291

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 wheat and he has not been able to find much that is new to say. But there is a certain perennial interest in this strange conflict among North Americans, and he and his publishers evidently feel that it is enough to support this considerable literary enterprise.

Interest among North Americans. This was essentially a war between Britain and the United States that was fought mainly in Canada. (To call it "the war that Canada won," as Berton does in the beginning, is foolish and he goes on to explain that he knows it.) Yet the English, who were a main party to the war, have never heard of it, and the Americans and the Canadians have quite different conceptions of it. American popular history has tended to represent it mainly as a naval war, fought on the oceans, in which a few American frigates humiliated the Royal Navy. Canadian legend centres on land battles, chiefly on the Niagara frontier, in which the gallant Canadian militia supposedly played a leading part in vanquishing the proud invader. This is myth; if the defence had been left to the Canadians, it wouldn't have lasted a month. It was the British professionals in their scarlet coats (not crimson, please, Pierre) who provided the leadership and bore the brunt. These old tales, no doubt, are still not extinct; so perhaps there is room for a popular book, based as this one is on careful research in the contemporary documents, to bring to the masses (if they can be prevailed upon to read it) some knowledge of the actual facts as writers and readers of history have known them for years.

The author and his helpers have done a great deal of investigation, as his bibliography and references testify. Nevertheless, as a history of the war The Invasion of Canada leaves much to be desired. Its approach, not surprisingly, is anecdotal, and on the analytical side it falls short. Some things are overdone; others are almost entirely missing. It may be, as Berton says, that the Indians have had less than their due from some writers, but he errs in the opposite direction; we are inundated with Indians throughout. (Indians, of course, are much in the public eye at the moment.) On the other hand, the naval forces on the Great Lakes—the real key to victory in warfare on the Canadian frontier—are very inadequately dealt with; the Provincial Marine, which made Sir Isaac Brock's successful defence of Canada in 1812 possible, is mentioned only incidentally, and is not even in the index. The nature of the land forces on each side is likewise never fully explained. In Canada Berton talks about "the militia" but never tells us the nature of the force or of the laws that created it; Brock's innovation on the eve of war, the law setting up the volunteer "flank companies" that gave him the most effective militia units that fought under him, is not mentioned. And the author has a tendency to interpret the early 19th century in terms of 1980. He seems astonished to discover that Brock "despised democracy"—in other words, that he was typical of his time, class, and country. One might as well attack the poor general for never having voted NDP.

Anecdotal, I said, the book is, and Berton is a skilful anecdotist. On the most important anecdote in the book, however, his researchers have slipped a bit. He quotes the Kingston Gazette (incidentally, it was actually quoting the York Gazette) as writing of Brock's fall at Queenston Heights, "'Push on brave York Volunteers,' [they] being then near him, they were the last words of the dying Hero." He is quite right in saying that these words cannot have been addressed to the York Volunteers, for they were not yet on the field when Brock was killed; he is right in saying that it is well established that Brock said nothing after he was hit; but he is not right in saying that if the words were said at all it could only have been when he passed the Volunteers as he rode towards Queenston. He has missed a letter dated two days after the battle and printed in the Quebec Mercury. The writer, probably himself a Volunteer officer, says, "The York volunteers to whom he was particularly partial, have the honor of claiming his last words; immediately before he received his death wound he cried out, to some person near him to push on the York volunteers, which were the last words he uttered." It is quite possible that this is the true version.

Berton is not the first to point out that the leaders of the militia in 1812 later became the leaders of the Family Compact (whom he seems to think of as pretty villainous, as per the school histories of half a century ago). But is he really right in saying that Brock's Monument on Queenston Heights is merely a "symbol" of the Compact? I wonder whether the thousands of people from all over Upper Canada who converged on Queenston on July 30, 1840, to make plans for a new and finer monument to replace the one that had been bombed were really there for political reasons? I would prefer to think of Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson, who was there and was a leader in the movement, not as a political figure in this connection but rather as the hero-worshipping militia subaltern who followed Brock to the capture of Detroit and who met his body being carried back as he and his company of the Volunteers pounded into Queenston on the bloody morning of Oct. 13, 1812, and who never forgot him. And I suspect that those crowds of Canadians who assembled in 1840 were moved not by political motives but by the continuing power of the legend of the Hero of Upper Canada, and by gratitude to the memory of the man who had, beyond all question, saved the province from conquest. It takes more than politicians to create such waves of feeling. Especially, I suspect, in Canada.

This is a long-winded book. The present volume (the first of two) gets us only to January, 1813, covering eight months of a 2 1/2-year war. Berton often goes into enormous detail, particularly on the American side. He and his helpers have dug deeply into the accounts the assailants of 1812 left behind them—they are almost all in print, somewhere or other—and he quotes fairly relentlessly. His own lively style and skilful organization are sometimes almost swept away in the flood of early American rhetoric. The documents familiar as brief quotations in the old textbooks are given here in extenso. The book's title, one speculates, was chosen with intention; the emphasis is rather more on the invasion of Canada than on the defence. One notes that it was "printed in the United States of America." Is it a fair assumption that this time the Great Canadian Storyteller and The Canadian Publishers are out to crack the Great American Market? Well, if they are, good luck to them.

John Yohalem (review date 22 February 1981)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

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.

Neither side wished to fight. The Americans were grossly unprepared, but didn't realize it, thanks to the 30 years of back-patting that followed the Revolution. The British had their hands full fighting most of Europe—indeed, President Madison said he would never have declared war if he had thought Napoleon would lose. Only the brutalized and disinherited Indians wanted to fight—for the British and against the land-hungry Americans mostly—and only the Indians got nothing out of it.

The Americans got two war-hero Presidents, Harrison and Jackson. But the Canadians, as is usually forgotten south of the border, got a national myth. (Mr. Berton has the wise historian's healthy respect for the power of myth.) A sparsely populated land in which an entrenched aristocracy ruled an apathetic yeomanry, mostly American or French in origin and loyalty, Canada seemed likely to drift into the Union rather than remain loyal to a distant colonial office. This did not occur, Mr. Berton convincingly asserts, thanks to the national sentiment aroused by the incompetent but bloody American attempt to force union.

He tells the complicated story of the first year of the war and its antecedents in the present tense: "The articles of surrender stipulate that the Americans must leave the fort before the British enter. A confused melee follows. The American soldiers are in a turmoil, some crying openly, a few of the officers breaking their swords and some of the soldiers their muskets rather than surrender them. Others cry 'Treason!' and 'Treachery!' and heap curses and imprecations on their general's head. One of the Ohio volunteers tries to stab Macdonell." The evidence for scenes like this are drawn from the innumerable archives, letters, journals and recollections that survive on both sides.

The Invasion of Canada is much more rousing than most historical novels. The maps are many, clear and informative. The second volume will appear in 1983.

George Woodcock (review date October 1981)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 967

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 is not merely the intense populism of Berton's approach, though the small people are here again in their dozens, the private soldiers, the women defending their possessions, the anonymous farmers gratuitously killed, the Indians who are faceless terrors to their enemies. It is also his deep moralism. For, as his account of this foolish and unnecessary conflict draws to an end one realizes that, as certainly as Tolstoy in War and Peace, Berton is making his judgments on the phenomenon of war and on the political pretensions from which it emerges.

"Men will write," Berton remarks, "that the War of 1812 was the making of the United States: for the first time she was taken seriously in Europe; that it was also the making of Canada: her people were taught pride through a common resistance to the invaders: that bloody and insane though it may have been, Lundy's Lane and Stoney Creek produced the famous undefended border between the two nations.

"True, But in terms of human misery and the human waste—the tall ships shattered by cannonball and grape; the barns and mills gutted by fire; villages put to the torch, grain fields ravaged, homes looted, breadwinners shackled and imprisoned; and thousands dead from cannon shot and musket fire, gangrene, typhus, ague, or simple exposure, can anyone truly say on this crisp Christmas Eve that the game was ever worth the candle?"

True, that is a question, but a rhetorical one, and like most such questions it really admits of only one answer. What in our hearts can we say but "no!" But that, it seems to me, is the answer Berton, as surely as Tolstoy, is intent we should make to war of any kind. Few academic historians—for Donald Creighton was a notable exception—would lead us so firmly towards a moral conclusion. And this, I suppose, is what marks off the way a man of imagination as distinct from a man of mere scholarship, responds to the facts with which he deals. He cannot leave them as mere facts. He composes them into a picture, detailed and panoramic though it may be, and the very fact of shaping brings a judgement that is implicit from the beginning, but slowly emerges into articulateness as the facts build on each other, until in the end, if the author makes an explicit statement, as Berton does, the reader is at least prepared for the lesson he is being taught, and may well agree.

What we enjoy from reading history is perhaps not so much the lessons it may have to teach us—which most men are inclined to forget pretty quickly—as its power to recreate a past that time has stolen from us but which we feel has in some way determined the kind of life we are living in the present. Quite apart from our moral judgements of the War of 1812, of the ineptness or callousness of its commanders, of the triviality of its aims in comparison with the suffering and destruction it caused, we are interested in the patterns of these battles of long ago, which Berton visualizes and narrates so clearly, and in these people who are our spiritual—even if not our physical—ancestors because they have helped to shape the world in which we live, the Canada that is still, as Berton remarks, so attached to the "comfortable, orderly, secure, paternalistic". As in The Invasion of Canada, his earlier volume, Berton gives us a fascinating gallery of portraits, in which the common people caught in the web of war are as mordantly visualized as the incompetents and megalomaniacs who had the illusion of pulling the strings of destiny.

Berton's is the kind of history that has little room for heroics, for the posturings of men who think themselves great. But it still has room for true heroes, and just as the image of Isaac Brock seems to breathe through The Invasion of Canada, so does that of Tecumseh through Flames Across the Border, even though he is dead and spirited away from the battlefield by the time the book is half way through. For, as Berton remarks, Tecumseh and a few of his fellow Indians were almost the only people in the War of 1812 who fought for an ideal, for the freedom to continue their ancient way of life, and they were the real losers in the war, betrayed by the British, destined to be destroyed as tribal societies by the Americans. In the process they helped to preserve Canada from American domination, but that was not their aim, which was doomed when Tecumseh died.

"But in death as in life," as Berton says, "there is only one Tecumseh. His last resting place like so much of his career, is a mystery; but his memory will be for ever green."

The final test of good history writing is whether it changes our view of the past it deals with. I know I shall never again look on the War of 1812 as I did before I read Berton's two books. My view is now richer, deeper and, I think, truer.

Lorna Irvine (essay date Spring 1986)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4296

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 Fantasy. The novel bears on the back cover a description of the author: "Lisa Kroniuk emigrated to Canada several years ago and now lives in the West. A single mother, she has one daughter, Lara. This is her second novel; an earlier work was published in Eastern Europe, on the theme of sexual ambiguity. She writes: 'I am myself part of the masquerade'."

When the "To Tell the Truth" game arrived at its famous question, "Will the real Lisa Kroniuk please stand up?", to people's astonishment, Pierre Berton rose. He, it turns out, is the novel's author. He had kept his secret well. Jack McClelland, Masquerade's publisher as well as Berton's long-time publisher, friend, and business partner, claims to have been kept in the dark during the two years of the project's maturing. So does Janet Berton, the author's wife. Berton described the experience for Sandy Naiman of The Toronto Sun: "'I got the idea during a period of jet lag in London…. It had never occurred to me to write a novel. I'm not a novelist. But I got the idea of a bordello that ran fantasies and I started fiddling with it when I was on vacation in the Caribbean'." The book received little attention. For Pierre Berton, author of thirty books (other than Masquerade), three-time winner of the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction, possessor of ten honorary degrees and fifteen other awards, an author who has topped the Canadian best-sellers list with books like The Comfortable Pew, and The Smug Minority, a well-known television personality, the man who has made the Yukon famous and who has, some think single-handedly, created Canadian history, writing an ignored novel about sexual fantasies is an unusual experience.

Considering his prolific publishing record, is it appropriate to begin a discussion of Pierre Berton's work with an apparent aberration like Masquerade? His publishers and his agent insist that the book is completely different from anything Berton has written heretofore. However, apart from the fact that it is listed as a novel, and Berton is essentially a writer of non-fiction, Masquerade is a most revealing piece of writing, tying in neatly with what is perhaps Berton's most significant popular role: the establishing, elucidating, and developing of a specifically Canadian approach to the confidence game tradition that so dominates the folklore and culture of the United States. This is not a popular argument to make. Canadians have long prided themselves on their superiority to American selling techniques, and among anglophones at least, the stereotypical British dislike of self-promotion—indeed of any kind of promotion at all—has encouraged the belief in Canadian reserve. This fiction has among other misconceptions worked against the accepting of any specifically Canadian popular culture; the tendency has been, until very recently, to denounce all forms of popular or mass manipulative culture as American.

To suggest that the thoroughly Canadian Pierre Berton has developed, in content, but more important, in his style of writing and the method of selling, a pattern that can be connected with cultural conning, implies that Canada has its own game mentality, and that erasing it by calling it American is inaccurate. Nonetheless, such erasure has a long history. Thomas Haliburton's Sam Slick was a Yankee; about him, Robert McDougall writes: "Sam's democratic brashness, his 'calculatin' shrewdness, his colossal assurance and resourcefulness in argument, his readiness with homespun comments, with anecdotes and tall tales—all these traits were already connected with popular conceptions of the Yankee character." Susanna Moodie employs the stereotype: "No thin, weasel-faced Yankee was he, looking as if he had lived upon 'cute ideas and speculations all his life," while her sister, Catherine Parr Traill, comments disparagingly on "annoying Yankee manners." The disease "spreading up from the south" that creeps through Margaret Atwood's Surfacing is none other than American commercialism. Denial and projection seem, then, conventionally to characterize Canadian approaches to the low art of selling.

Obviously, Masquerade is a con, and as such, tells us something about Pierre Berton's own use of the tradition of tricksters and gamesmen. The title is the first hint that trickery is occurring. Indeed, the fantasies stress, one after the other, the counterfeiting of fiction. They are not particularly erotic. The connecting link is a business operation, a bordello, run by a "Momma" who has been financially, and imaginatively, backed by a Magician who might come from the work of Robertson Davies. The business is designed to cater to people's sexual fantasies while keeping, as one of the concluding stories states, "within the bounds of good taste," within the normal, rather than the abnormal, one is tempted to say, the Canadian rather than the American. To carry out the fantasies are Erika, the perennial schoolgirl, Candace, the nurse, beautiful male Julio, loved by men, Lara, the Bitch of Berlin, Raven, whose specialty is necrophilia, Andrea, the jungle girl, the three nuns, Flame, Lola and Bibi, Alix, the schoolmarm, and finally Turk, the simple-minded truck driver who has to be locked into his truck to keep him from wandering off. With this cast, Berton creates fifteen fantasies that begin and end with the same client, Marcus, who, we are told in the first fantasy, "was in a rut. He longed to get away, perhaps to some South Sea island where the wind was warm and the women willing. He longed for an adventure—any adventure—even if it meant flirting with death."

Although I am not interested in describing the specific fantasies, I want to investigate several of Berton's themes, his narrative technique and, what I think is of most interest, his role as a representative of Canada, a role only obliquely realized in Masquerade. Several of the stories of Masquerade, like many individual stories in Klondike, The National Dream, The Last Spike, The Invasion of Canada, Flames Across the Border and, The Promised Land, focus on and demonstrate, not just trickery or illusion (the whole book does that), but the setting up of actual confidence games. In "Momma's Reverie," Momma describes the game: "In a seduction, or a confidence game (is there really any difference? Momma asks herself), both players take on roles, the seduced as well as the seducer, the mark as well as the trickster. Bolstered by the flattery of one, the other sees herself with new eyes, gains confidence, falls in love with the image that has been constructed for her." It is a theme that has earlier received Berton's attention. In a book published in the 1960's, The Big Sell—a collection of his newspaper columns—Berton discusses classic confidence games: "Any student of the classic confidence games must be struck by the several parallels they present with some modern big-sell techniques. The confidence man sells nothing but himself, of course, while the salesman peddles more tangible merchandise; but the psychological techniques each employs are remarkably similar." Con artists, as Berton is well aware, need to be masters of detail. A friend of his, an accomplished con artist, tells Berton that con artists expend the most energy establishing the credibility of a story. Apart from the fact that trickery inevitably connects with any writer's job—to create illusion—an author who attracts a mass audience has necessarily developed particularly sophisticated selling techniques. As Berton said in one interview (apparently in reference to all his books): "I wouldn't be writing this stuff if there weren't the market for it."

Anecdotes dominate the selling techniques of good confidence men, anecdotes that frequently debunk or make accessible characters and events in fact quite distant. This aspect of Berton's work leads a reviewer of The Promised Land to state: "there's an overemphasis on scandal and corruption, and not enough about farming the land, getting the crop to market, early frost, loneliness. One might have hoped for a little less debunking." This reviewer is asking for factual, rather than anecdotal, material. But Berton has made his name precisely by telling tall tales, by creating vivid, if unworthy, characters, by reporting, in various guises and from different perspectives, all the ways in which Canadians have manipulated themselves into the present. Melville's confidence man has Canadian brothers.

The psychology of conning fascinates Berton. In Klondike, he investigates people who, in the role of either yeggs or con artists, are consumed by greed. At its height, the gold rush disproved any Horatio Alger myth of success (that is, hard work as superior to luck). People aimed to get rich as quickly as possible. Incredible devices were invented—and sold. Dawson's entertainments, Berton tells us, were established to "extract as much gold as possible from the audience." People worked under false names; some fortunes were exhausted in a few weeks; others were made overnight. Soapy Smith, the dictator of Skagway, built up a career from nothing; he was a "man of considerable imagination and dry humour" who contrived to appear on the side of law and order but who, in fact, made his fortune from taking money away from others. And he had the down-home personality of an effective confidence man; people liked him. The whole of Klondike elaborates on stories about this kind of person. Indeed, the book itself, perhaps an example of what it is about, continues to make its author considerable money.

Klondike concentrates on the gold rush, a particularly symbolic example of greed. But from different perspectives, each of the other three books of the tetralogy (The National Dream, The Last Spike, and The Promised Land) reveals the author's interest in bargaining, if not in downright cheating among the principal makers of Canada's past. The National Dream elucidates, with anecdotal delight, proliferating land deals, alcoholic but immensely personable Prime Ministers, and a public growing fat on materialistic fantasies, while The Last Spike illustrates in detail a short-sighted but greedy Canadian west. No longer interested in growing crops, when land can be marketed much more profitably, Canadians are shown cheating the Indians, while the company stores develop increasingly fast methods of making a buck. The Promised Land, published last year, concentrates its whole attention, as its title announces, on land: not solid earth, the kind farmers plough, but ephemeral fantasies.

In The Confidence Man in American Literature, a fascinating psychological and cultural analysis of the meaning of conning in American life, Gary Lindberg argues that, at least in the settling of the American West, "Nation building … turns out to be a massive game of confidence." He continues: "in speculation, as in confidence games more generally, all belongings and winnings became mere parts of the game. The reality was drained out of domestic life, material objects and labor." This phenomenon is precisely what Berton investigates in The Promised Land. In the Prologue, he tells us that "This is a book about dreams and illusions, escape and survival, triumph and despair," and goes on to describe various searches for utopia in the continuous flow of people from the old world to the new, all too easily promised, land.

Newspapers became major agents in the game of selling people land and populating the west (and Berton, a newspaperman himself, understands newspaper games). Suppression of information was customary, as it inevitably is in any kind of manipulation. The nightmares of journeys in extremely cold weather were hushed up; for example, attempts were made to ban the publication of Manitoba's winter temperatures. Berton makes clear too that self-interest was the motivating force behind settlement: the word "ethnic" was not in use in the nineteenth century; "there were no discussions about 'roots,' no talk of 'multiculturalism,' little pandering to national cultures, and certainly no reference to a Canadian mosaic." According to Berton, assimilation was the key word. Indeed, many of the Europeans who peopled the west of Canada were themselves in the grip of dreams that all too often were formed because of trickery. The Doukhobors followed a peculiarly destructive path, and evangelical groups from Scotland were sold on Canada by preachers—themselves masters of the art of conning—like the Rev. Isaac Barr:

     Barr, Barr, wily old Barr
     He'll do you as much as he can.
     You bet he will collar
     Your very last dollar
     In the valley of Sask-atchewan.

Great Britain continued to advertise Canada as the land of opportunity, while in fact using Canada as a dumping ground for her own undesirables.

The politics of the west frequently exacerbated (or perhaps reflected) the problem; politicians like Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior under Prime Minister Laurier, a character of apparent fascination to Berton, who makes him the central character of The Promised Land, demonstrate the connections between political corruption and confidence trickery. Sifton, like any manipulator, wanted to get rich, and used political power to do so. In a review of this book, William French extends the example: "Sifton's methods of attracting settlers provide a forceful examination of modern marketing techniques. He was selling an idea—the idea that the Canadian West was the promised land, that free homesteads and hard work would bring undreamed-of material success."

An example from more recent history is Berton's less well-known book about the Dionne quintuplets, The Dionne Years. The book is certainly cultural history and points to the use made of the Quints in the battle between the French and the English. But Berton's real interest is in the ways successful marketing techniques can move an unknown product (the backwoods, northern Ontario Dionne family) into the international limelight. Again, too, Berton spends considerable time elucidating the psychology of the doctor who delivered the quints and who made himself a substantial fortune as a result. Although initially an apparently simple country doctor, he became adept at selling his personality and, of course, his story. What emerges from the book, too, is what begins to seem standard Canadian response to marketing: while complaining about "cheap American publicity," and attempting a neutral Canadian stance, the Canadians involved with Quintland were raking in fortunes, by selling the Quints' pictures to advertising firms, tourists, and other Canadians—hardly a neutral undertaking.

Many such examples occur in Berton's books. Nonetheless, the confidence mentality plays an ambivalent role in the Canadian consciousness. The economically powerful United States makes Canada's differences about money particularly problematic. Economic metaphors are frequently used (Canadians sell out to the United States; Americans buy Canadians). Enraged by American economic dominance, Canadian nationalist Robin Mathews lashes out at susceptible Canadians: "Colonies are places that are done to rather than doing or doing to…. The people are under perpetual pressure to adopt the beliefs and ideology of the powerful country that manipulates them." Mathews later claims: "The human product of the liberal ideology is the Robber Baron of free enterprise and the cop-out hippie/yippie of the so-called 'counter-culture.'… It teaches the Canadian to scorn history, to reject communal values." One can certainly detect a long history of British snobbery here. But in a somewhat less hysterical way, a good number of Canadians want to believe that Canada is a less gullible, less outrageously vulgar, less materialistic, less self-advertising country than the United States. Berton is no exception. He seems, then, an interesting example of the ambivalence that permeates Canada's effort to differentiate itself from American business. He is interested in the confidence mentality, in the selling of his own books as well as in their content and style; he emphasizes anecdotes and tall tales, uses the present tense, which makes the reader participate more fully in the action, and loudly sells ideas.

But Berton also openly castigates American techniques. In Why We Act Like Canadians, a book structured as a dialogue between Berton and Uncle Sam, he describes Canadians as virtually immune to manipulation of the confidence kind. Institutions like the Hudson's Bay Company he paints as paternal protectors rather than exploiters of the population, and argues that Canadians have always been more interested in public good than in private property. Important extensions of these ideas occur in Hollywood's Canada. where Berton casts the Americans as manipulators and con artists, translating Canadian characters such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, the French Canadian, the Metis, the Canadian Indian into items saleable to an American public. According to Berton, it "didn't occur to Hollywood and it didn't occur to Canadian audiences either, that the Canadian concept of order imposed from above clashed with the American idea of rough frontier justice." In the American Preface to Flames Across the Border, Berton hammers away at the same differences ("America's heritage is revolutionary; Canada's is colonial"), and summarizes the differences in national qualities: "American ebullience, Canadian reserve. The Americans went wild over minor triumphs, the Canadians remained phlegmatic over major ones." Like many other Canadians, Berton insists on dividing Americans and Canadians specifically in terms of their ability to promote themselves and others.

Berton is fascinated by slick talking and by selling, and associates characteristics related to confidence trickery with Canadian development. Rhetorically, he uses confidence tricks that have worked to make him one of the best-selling writers in Canada. He understands the psychology of his largely Canadian audiences, who enjoy both the anecdotal (his work seems more oral than literary) style and the quantity of factual information he offers. As one Canadian to whom I recently spoke said: "Nobody would know anything about Canadian history if Berton were not around to popularize it." The assumptions he makes are various; he does not always assume his audience's gullibility—he is in fact a much more committed Canadian than that—but he is in the business of selling ideas and, often, of persuading others to change their minds. In a book like Why We Act Like Canadians, he adopts the voice of a manipulator, addressing a naive audience, in this case, a pretended American one (the book in fact is meant for the educating of a Canadian audience; Americans find it most offensive). He frequently assumes a helpful, comradely persona, employing considerable repetition and assiduously establishing his own honesty. The Wild Frontier begins inclusively: "We are all the creatures of the wilderness, the children of frontiers"; the author's Note at the end of Klondike announces that "My whole life has been conditioned by the Klondike"; all of Drifting Home is an establishing of familial and cultural roots, and, in an epigraph to the first chapter of the cookbook he co-edited with his wife (The Centennial Food Guide), he assures the reader that "The male editor of this book unconditionally guarantees this soup. In twenty years of marriage he has drunk bathtubfuls of it."

Berton consistently plays as well, on the human desire for variety, shifting his persona as he shifts his game strategies. His dramatic shift into the role of a female Polish novelist draws particular attention to this facility. But his performance ranges over an extremely wide area, from the children's story, The World of Og (based on episodes and characters in his own family); to the cookbook; to numerous, snappy newspaper columns (collected in Just Add Water and Stir, Fast, Fast, Fast Relief, and Adventures of a Columnist); to the promotion of tourism (for example, The New City: A Prejudiced View of Toronto, Drifting Home); to exposés of public corruption or hypocrisy (The Big Sell, My War With the Twentieth Century, The Comfortable Pew, The Smug Minority); to popular Canadian histories (the western tetralogy, the books on the War of 1812); and to commentaries on popular culture (The Dionne Years, The Cool Crazy Committed World of the Sixties, Hollywood's Canada). Part of the appeal of these books is nostalgic: they encourage Canadian longings for past glories and, what is more important, satisfy some of these desires with historical and cultural information and dramatic anecdotes. The popular style that Berton uses—parabolic, anecdotal, a traditional selling style—simplifies the oblique lessons of history and gives narrative coherence to disparate facts. The popular histories particularly elicit our confidence.

On the other hand, Berton's ambivalence about the merchant mentality persists. Like other Canadians, he attempts to project the more unpleasant effects of mercantile persuasion on to the Americans. This inclination is, I believe, characteristically Canadian and, while reflected in the artifacts of Canada's popular culture, is most noticeable in their reception. In Berton's work, the Canadian confidence game simultaneously demonstrates and repels trickery, while Canada and various Canadians appear confusingly as both active and passive, as both persuaders and gulls, as both perpetrators and victims. This ambivalent stance is peculiarly paralyzing, at least when one is talking about Canadian popular culture. Yet, like the United States, Canada's is a new world culture. Gary Lindberg believes that confidence games tell us something about the psychology of societies newly forming and in flux. He argues that repeated moving has

made many Americans restless, unstable, thirsty for novelty. It has loosened family and community bonds and has encouraged people to dwell imaginatively in the future. Institutions that depend on stable residence, like primogeniture and apprenticeship, have lost their power, and personal facility has been given a correspondingly wider field. In social relations this ceaseless movement has weakened the familiar patterns of identification. Instead of relying on family background, class habits, inherited manners, many Americans have had to confront each other as mere claimants.

Canadians cannot avoid these phenomena.

At the same time, Canada, at least hypothetically, seems particularly sensitive to communal demands, quite likely for geographical and economic reasons. The themes Berton most emphasizes in Canadian development (the importance of authority in Canada and the preference for arbitration over revolution), are themes that create tension between individual and group undertakings. Berton seems torn between the two. His own family matters to him; and he is certainly concerned about his country. According to most analysts of it, the confidence tradition in American culture emphasizes distinctive individualism. In certain ways, Berton delineates for Canada a more group-oriented conning, games that pertain to broad segments of Canadian culture.

He also undertakes to give Canada a frontier past that seems to contradict Canadian denials about its existence: he shows, in books like The Mysterious North, Klondike, and The Wild Frontier, how Canadians, like other people, are attracted to the mystery and danger of frontiers where they can test their courage. This largely masculine undertaking—Berton does describe women on the frontier, but mostly he is concerned with male adventure—often, as Lindberg also demonstrates, goes hand in hand with confidence trickery, with the susceptibilities of changing cultures. Yet here too, Berton's ambivalence persists. Although he seems to be constructing a less passive, rough and tumble, carousing, badboy image of Canada—some Canadian historians stereotypically reflect Canada in female metaphors—he also preserves Canada's difference from the United States in passive-active dichotomies. In Why We Act Like Canadians he writes: "We were never a community of rebels, escaping from the clutches of a foreign monarch…. Basking in the security and paternalism that our constitutional phraseology suggests, we sought gradually and through a minimum of bloodshed to achieve our own form of independence." Berton's ambivalence does not, of course, lessen the significance of frontier conning. In fact, the paternalistic, authoritarian culture that Berton posits as Canada's seems particularly amenable to manipulation. As soon as someone establishes authority, victims appear to play the game. Even the dislike of physical violence that accompanies particular kinds of authoritarianism encourages the mental rather than physical struggles characteristic of confidence games.

Finally, ambivalent Canadian attitudes to rigid class systems give further room for confidence trickery. Confidence men seem classless, eliminating cultural differences by conning rich and poor alike. Furthermore, like many Canadians, the confidence man is not interested in abrupt or radical changes in society. Lindberg emphasizes that he "does not provide an outlet for unruliness, nor does he disrupt the social bounds. He is a culturally representative figure, not a marginal one, and his message is that the boundaries are already fluid, that there is ample space between his society's official rules and its actual tolerances." Berton operates on just such fluid boundaries.

In his literary study of confidence men, John Blair argues that the confidence man "serves as figure for the writer whose artistic medium must manipulate pretenses and false-hoods even in order to probe the nature of the true and false in the larger world." Thus we return to Masquerade. Broadly interpreted, Blair's observation is no doubt true. But it is not just that Berton is a writer. It is that he is predominantly interested in masquerades, in the playing of roles, in trickery. As Momma says: "in life costume is everything. Costume is a two-way mirror. It casts a reflection. The role player sees his image staring back at him in the eyes of others, and the role becomes the reality." Furthermore, Berton is a remarkably popular writer; his manipulation of his material and of his audience allows him to play games, as well as to instruct. He reminds Canadians of their materialism, of their willingness to be manipulators as well as victims. Survival may, as Atwood claims, be a significant Canadian theme. But Canadian victims, at least according to Berton, are amply balanced by persuaders who know what the game is, and how to play it. These too, he insists, are Canadians.

Desmond Morton (review date November 1986)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1005

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 attempts seemed warning enough that the Germans could hold the ridge as long as they chose. For months, through the coldest winter Europe had known in decades, Canadians tunnelled and dragged supplies and raided enemy trenches. Generals and staff officers, who had been salesmen, editors, and professors only a couple of years earlier, plotted and planned. Finally, in the wake of the most effective artillery barrage the war had so far seen, 49 battalions of Canadian infantry walked forward through snow and mud to do the impossible deed.

Vimy is the battle Canadians associate with the First World War, as Australians remember Gallipoli or Broodeeinde, or the Americans Belleau Wood. It was not the complete, dramatic victory the British would achieve at Messines a few months later, or that Caadians and Australians would deliver at Amiens in August, 1918; it was a triumph Canadians needed to share with no one. Never before had all four divisions of the Canadian Corps advanced in line on a single objective. In the battalions were French and English, Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Japanese Canadians, native Canadians and representatives of every other ethnic fragment of the transcontinental Dominion.

There are few painless or perfect victories. Of the 38,000 men who advanced on Vimy, close to 10,000 would fall dead or wounded. Only three of the four divisions reached their objectives on that cold Easter Monday; not until the fourth day could the 4th Division's Brigadier General Edward Hilliam report from the final German stronghold, "I am King of the Pimple."

Worse, Vimy was not a great thing Canadians had done together. In Montreal that spring, recruiting parties for the Canadian Expeditionary Force were jeered; in most of Canada, they were merely ignored. Replacing the casualties of Vimy forced the conscription crisis of 1917. The scar tissue on the wounds to our national unity is still tender 70 years later.

At the time, the conflict at home was only hinted at to the victors of Vimy, much as soldiers themselves gave their families only rare glimpses of the horrors of their experiences in war. For them, Vimy had an unquestioned national significance. It coincided not only with the new professionalism of the corps and an unfamiliar wealth of shells, guns, and other military material but also with the dominance of the Canadian-born in what had been largely a contingent of British emigrés.

Even before historians suggested that April 9, 1917, was the moment when Canada was transformed from colony to nation, the Canadians at Vimy felt it in their bones. It was a feeling even the frugal, unimaginative government of William Lyon Mackenzie King was forced to respect when, a decade later, it authorized the memorial that now towers over the Douai Plain.

As the faithful chronicler of our national epics, Pierre Berton has turned to Vimy as naturally as he rediscovered the War of 1812, the building of the CPR, and the settlement of the Canadian West. He has brought to the task his usual narrative skill, an enthusiasm for odd characters and bizarre anecdotes and sufficient righteous indignation at war and its horrors to reassure readers who fear the Rambo disease.

Berton's researchers have assembled scores of books and pamphlets by proud participants, and they have mustered a few dozen nonagenarian survivors and grilled them on their memories. The result, proclaims Professor William Kilbourn from the book's back cover, is "one of the most moving accounts of war and battle ever written."

Frankly, in the name of sales or friendship, Kilbourn overreaches himself. There are more accurate and interesting accounts of the battle, notably by the internationally known but locally ignored Canadian historian, Donald Goodspeed. The enthusiasm of Berton and his researchers reveals an embarrassing shortage of knowledge about the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the First World War. Errors speckle the pages. It would not have detracted from the author's lively prose to recognize that an artillery brigade in 1917 was very different from an infantry brigade, or that the 75th Battalion (now the Toronto Scottish) had nothing much to do with the thriving city that was named Mississauga only in 1967. Lloyd George favoured the Australian, John Monash, over Canada's Arthur Currie as a colonial successor to the generals he despised. The British began the war with two machine guns per battalion, not per division.

Frequent repetition does not guarantee truth. A generation ago, Charles Stacey demolished the beloved Canadian folk-myth that Sam Hughes thumped Lord Kitchener's desk for the sake of preserving a united Canadian contingent. Berton gives this and many other dubious legends a second life.

The unhappy fact is that Vimy is laden with errors and inaccuracies, none of which are needed for a lively narrative. Who cares? Berton, and the friends whose editorial puffs decorate his back cover—Richard Rohmer, Peter Newman, June Callwood—may dismiss such criticisms as the jealousy of academic nit-pickers. The marketplace may give them confidence. In Vimy, Pierre Berton has given book-buyers what most of them want: a good read and a help with the Christmas shopping list.

There is no evidence that Berton's readers want accuracy as much as they relish his colourful sermons on human folly and national achievement. They will learn much to excite and inspire them. In turn, the dollars he earns do as much as the rest of Ontario's taxpayers put together to keep McClelland & Stewart in business.

And someday a better book will be written.

Christopher Moore (review date November 1988)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 782

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 year after year, the navy sent ships and crews, with little or no special preparation, to bury themselves in the Arctic ice, then hope to get out before scurvy and starvation took over. Naval men refused to make any accommodation to the Arctic. They clung to their own brass-polishing subculture, and would no more take advice from Arctic whalers and northern fur traders than from the Inuit.

The navy's heroic stupidity culminated in Sir John Franklin's expedition of 1845. Franklin managed to bury two ships and 129 men more deeply than eer in Arctic ice—so successfully that no one ever saw them again. Franklin created one of those sentimental tragedies Englishmen loved, and it took ten frantic years and 50 expeditions to find where he had gone.

When the navy had proved what everyone knew, attention turned to a new grail, the North Pole. Brash Americans and methodical Scandinavians rushed in to compete, but the cold, distant pole defied them all. Finally in 1909 two separate American expeditions claimed victory. It now appears that both were frauds. No one, it seems, has ever reached the North Pole and returned unaided. The polar grail remains beyond reach, concludes Pierre Berton.

Berton's strengths as a historian are those that made him a master journalist: identifying the big story, getting the facts, and laying them out in clear, vigorous prose with strongly evoked protagonists and good common-sense judgements. All those strengths are evident in The Arctic Grail, and he needs them. Arctic exploration was often the work of vainglorious and incompetent men, but a Berton history needs heroes. With these the only heroes available, he has to steer a narrow passage between cautious debunking and qualified admiration.

There's another problem: most of the Arctic explorers turn out to be the same person. Question: which of the British explorersis a repressed, obsessed, middle-aged naval careerist with an odd marriage? Answer: all of the above. The Americans are all egomaniacal self-promoters, and the Scandinavians are, well, very Scandinavian. Berton uses all his narrative skill to guide us through their endless battles with cold, darkness, hunger, and each other. In a long book, a few sloppinesses have crept in. John Richardson could hardly have been a friend of Robert Burns, who died when he was nine. Surprisingly, there are lapses into jargon (tripe-de-roche, polynya), and the native people are mostly called Eskimo, sometimes Innuit, and once Inuit. The route maps are excellent, but the murky illustrations are haphazardly chosen. Where is the Arctic Council painting that is discussed in the text?

"Whose Arctic is it?" asks Berton at the close. He calls the British voyages the basis of Canadian sovereignty, and cites all their names on the map to prove it. But Frobisher Bay is already Iqaluit, and Franklin District will one day be Nunavut. Real Canadian sovereignty in the North came with the laborious imposition of Canadian policing and administration after 1900—a sovereignty still challenged by foreign submarines and tankers, and by the reassertion of native title.

The Arctic Grail closes on a plea to include the Inuit in northern history. Sadly, Berton has been almost completely unable to do this himself. He tells us the explorers failed to perceive the natives, but he notices only those few who played Sancho Panza to some explorer's Quixote.

Could he have done more? He tells how Robert McClure abandoned HMS Investigator at Banks Island in 1853, but not how the Investigator made the local Inuit rich. Coming so often to harvest precious wood and copper from the wreck, they wiped out the Banks Island musk-ox, which did not return for a century. McClure never knew that most lasting result of his voyage. Neither will Berton's readers. There is an ethnographic literature, not wholly valueless, that documents Inuit worlds. Who better than Berton to lead Canadians into them? But that might have meant challenging his readers—and Berton is cautious about that. He has given us an adventure thick with colour and drama. Are we asking too much to ask for more?

Charles Davies (review date November 1988)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

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 had to deal with it he was scarcely himself." Today, Franklin would be considered a wimp.

Nor was he a sophisticate in intellectual or spiritual affairs. He was horribly uncomfortable in drawing-room conversations and scarcely more relaxed in his correspondence. During their courtship, his first wife, poet Eleanor Anne Porden, reproached him for failing to address her in his letters by anything more intimate than "my dearest friend." His approach to religion was equally backward; in modern terms, he might be likened to a born-again Christian.

Yet Franklin, who had first gone to sea at the age of 12, had an extraordinary naval record. He had been on active duty in three of the great sea engagements of the Napoleonic Wars—including the Battle of Trafalgar—and surviveda shipwreck off Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

None of this, however, has anything to do with his enduring fame. What sealed his reputation, as Pierre Berton tells us in The Arctic Grail, was the fact that in 1845, at the age of 61, he took 134 men in two barque-rigged sailing ships (replete with such essentials as button polish and crested silverware) and disappeared somewhere in the area of King William Island. By losing his way (and in the process, his life) Franklin rose to a kind of sainthood. His disappearance triggered an 11-year search that filled in vast sections of the Arctic map, though few of the search parties yielded traces of the explorer's fate.

Berton treats Franklin's final expedition as the pivotal dramatic incident in the great age of Arctic exploration. From 1818, when the British Navy's Sir John Ross first attempted to find the Northwest Passage, until 1908, when American Robert Peary made his last expedition to the North Pole, Arctic exploration was something akin to a national obsession in Great Britain. Berton chronicles all the great voyages in this, his 34th book, and he fits them smoothly into the context of an age. Like that other magnificent Victorian adventure, the search for the source of the Nile River, expeditions to the Arctic created heroes suitable for an empire that spanned the globe.

In this romantic context, Franklin's failings could easily be forgotten. In a New York Times article of the period, Franklin was described as "one of the ablest, oldest and bravest men who had trodden that perilous path." The search for his expedition was, likewise, "as noble an epic as that which has immortalized the fall of Troy or the conquest of Jerusalem."

The reality, as Berton details in this exhaustively researched and seamlessly written narrative account, was much different. The hardships of Arctic exploration were almost indescribable. After waiting out the endless winter months of darkness and deadly cold, the members of these pioneering expeditions faced raging gales, rapidly changing weather conditions, and brutal physical labour. It was not uncommon for men to pull sledges weighing several hundred pounds across ice floes for days, only to discover that they had actually lost ground because of ice movements. But most explorers, including Franklin, learned to make the best of things, bringing along the accoutrements of civilization and passing the barren winter months with amateur theatricals. No matter how remote an outpost might be, it was nevertheless a tiny island of English civilization.

Ironically, this imperial attitude contributed to Franklin's downfall and limited the progress of many other expeditions. The British Navy, arrogant in the extreme, sent out expeditions time after time in unsuitable ships, manned by sailors in inadequate clothing (English woollens rather than Arctic furs). The ships invariably carried ample supplies of the wrong kind of food. Salted meat kept the explorers' bellies full but made it unnecessary to seek out the fresh meat or native foods that would have prevented the single greatest curse of each enterprise: scurvy.

Berton concludes that most of the crew likely succumbed to scurvy and the resulting dementia (even though recent evidence makes clear that lead poisoning from improperly soldered tin cans was also a factor). But what Berton is implying in this intensely readable book is that the most famous of all Arctic explorers really died of stupidity. In 1858, the veteran naval explorer Leopold M'Clintock stumbled across graphic evidence of Franklin's folly on the northwest coast of King William Island. He found a 28-foot boat, weighing about 700 or 800 pounds, on top of a sledge weighing another 650 pounds. Franklin's men, most likely weakened by scurvy and other illnesses, had dragged this grotesque contraption across the ice. What astounded M'Clintock, though, was the collection of books, cutlery, clothing, and other sundries the men had piled on the sledge. There was, Berton writes, "everything, in short, that civilized nineteenth century travellers considered necessary for their comfort and well-being." Ozymandias himself couldn't have left more telling mementoes of his passing.

Roland Huntford (review date 20 November 1988)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1577

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 book to relate.

Pierre Berton, a Canadian historian and the author of The Mysterious North, takes the quest for the North Pole and the Northwest Passage as a theme to unify the tale of Arctic exploration from the end of the Napoleonic wars to the first decade of this century. He dovetails the various expeditions to bring narrative order to a complex succession of events. He has produced a highly readable compendium of northern exploration, and a much-needed one, too.

The North Pole and the Northwest Passage represented the conquest of the unknown. Both captivated the public at the time. The North Pole was an obvious symbol of the ultimate. The Northwest Passage had a more convoluted significance. It was a route between the Atlantic and the Pacific, around the top f the North American continent, sought since the 16th century by northern Europeans as a shortcut to the East. By the time of its 19th-century revival, the quest for the Northwest Passage had become an end in itself—a romantic harking back to the glories of the Elizabethan age. In Mr. Berton's words, his book is "as much about explorers as it is about exploring." And rightly so. They are all there, the assorted rogues, idealists, escapists, heroes, bunglers and occasional man of talent who trooped into the snows.

There is kindly old Sir John Franklin, seeking the Northwest Passage in 1845 and innocently leading his men to death, every one. There is his indomitable wife, Jane, consummately playing the role of Victorian widow, seeing that expeditions went out to search for her husband. There is Elisha Kent Kahe, the American doctor who went on one of those searches and whose twin obsessions were the Arctic and Margaret Fox, probably the original medium. "Remember then," he wrote her, "that Doctor Kane of the Arctic Seas loved Maggie Fox of the spirit rappings." In that direction, at least, Kane had no illusions; Miss Fox produced her effects by cracking her double-jointed toes. Far from the world of spirit rappings, there is the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, finally navigating the Northwest Passage in 1903 with a minimum of fuss.

What drove these disparate characters to high latitudes? Mr. Berton sensibly does not give an answer pat. He does give one hint in the title of the book. The symbolism of the Holy Grail is connected with the power of illusion in driving men on. Mr. Berton also implies that an obsessive personality may be part of the pattern.

In the background, more easily identifiable motives lurk. For the first half of the 19th century. Arctic exploration was virtually a British preserve. Most expeditions were naval ones. Partly, it was to find work for redundant officers after the Napoleonic wars. Partly, too, it was to promote the westward march of Empire, for the Northwest Passage lay largely in the Canadian Arctic. Above all, it was to keep Russia in check. For Russia held Alaska then and, whatever her regime, was proceeding, as usual, with her organic drive to expand.

The Royal Navy secured British and, later, Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. It was accompanied by staggering ineptitude and unnecessary loss of life. That holds the moral of this book. The Royal Navy stumbled from one debacle to the other because it clung to unsuitable methods and refused to adapt to an unfamiliar environment.

"Badly and hastily organized with a smugness and an arrogance that in hindsight seem almost criminal," Mr. Berton writes of one naval expedition, "this band of amateurs set off blithely, as so many had before it, without any real idea of what they were facing." In half a century, the Navy learned almost nothing in the snows, repeating the same old mistakes. There was no attempt to learn from the Eskimos, who clearly had learned how to survive in a barely habitable environment. Dogs were not used, and man-hauling was the order of the day. Clothing was tight, stiff, unsuitable and made of broadcloth and wool instead of fur. Innovation was despised. Mr. Berton quotes one member of a naval expedition who brought snowshoes and suffered "laughter and derision from the gallant but very inexperienced officers." Scurvy ravaged expedition after expedition, despite the example of the native peoples who were manifestly exempt.

It is a familiar tale. In the heyday of Empire the British, wherever they went, somehow contrived to live as uncomfortably and unhealthily as they possibly could. Their tragedy was that they dragged their environment with them, and staunchly refused to adapt. Worse still, among them, they did number polar travellers without equal. There was, for instance, Dr. John Rae (Amundsen's hero), an Orkneyman working for the Hudson's Bay Company, who had learned from the native peoples. But Rae and his like were ignored by the polar establishment. It was one outcome of a depressing worship of mediocrity.

It is a disturbing echo of larger issues. Britain was sinking into intellectual isolation. The Royal Navy, which after Trafalgar stood supreme, was decaying from within. Flair and initiative, the backbone of the Nelson tradition, were rapidly being bred out. The culmination in the snows, as Mr. Berton repeatedly points out, was Scott's disastrous rout by Amundsen at the South Pole—predictable, and predicted, even at the time. It was a paradigm of the collapse of British power.

In the Far North, during the second half of the 19th century, the British, symbolically enough, faded from the picture, to be replaced by the Americans. That also brought drama, but of a different kind. There was, for example, Charles Francis Hall, a high school dropout and owner of the little Cincinnati News, who sold out, tried to reach the North Pole and suffered death by arsenic. There was Adolphus Washington Greely who, in 1882, wrested the record for the Farthest North from the British, after they had held it for three centuries; they were never to recover this distinction. But on Greely's expedition, only 6 of 23 men survived, he executed one man for stealing food and there was cannibalism, too.

Technically, there was little wrong with these Americans. They were adaptable. They learned from the indigenous tribes—Hall was one of the few white men deliberately to live like the Eskimos. They admired success and were alien to the British cult of the glorious failure. Their flaws were impetuosity, impatience, a desire for quick results, so that their technical virtuosity was almost to no avail. It all ended with Cook and Peary, both masters of polar travel, each claiming to have conquered the North Pole for the United States, but neither of whom Mr. Berton happens to believe.

Mr. Berton reserves his admiration for the Norwegians. Their achievements were out of all proportion to their numbers. There was Fridtjof Nansen, who in 1888 made the first crossing of Greenland and, a few years later, achieved a sensational Farthest North by allowing his ship to be frozen in and drifting with the pack. There was Otto Sverdrup, who in four seasons discovered 100,000 square miles of new territory in the Canadian Arctic. There was Roald Amundsen, whom Mr. Berton calls the Norwegians' "crowning ornament": double victor of the Northwest Passage and finally the South Pole.

These men were notably efficient and achieved what they did with little loss of life. They were, in Mr. Berton's words, "a different breed from the hidebound British and the impetuous Americans. They were, after all, a subarctic people, used to cold weather and high winds, familiar with skis, sledges, and dogs. They were also immensely practical." They were also, be it added, individualists to a man, but free of the heroic delusion.

In the end, Mr. Berton's real heroes are the Eskimos. They are not commemorated on the maps, but the European explorers are. "The squat little men," as he puts it, "who fed John Ross's company in the Gulf of Boothia … who taught Rae, Hall, and Peary how to exist under polar conditions, gave no thought to such white concepts as fame, ambition or immortality." There is in this an all-too-familiar note of Western self-abnegation.

Implicit in The Arctic Grail is yet another chapter, for better or worse, of the Western European conquest of the globe. It is the movement that began with the blaze of the Renaissance in Italy five centuries ago and spread out in all spheres of human endeavor. Exploration, in the sense of sheer restlessness to find out what lies over the horizon, is a Western phenomenon. Those men who, with varying success, pitted themselves against the hostile polar environment were the heirs of the Renaissance, the heart of which was the promotion of the individual and the discovery of the world. They represent our kind of civilization, of which, in spite of everything, we should still be proud. This book suggests as much.

Chauncey Loomis (review date 21 December 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3099

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 peninsulas, its peninsulas for islands. Exacerbating the problem was ice, especially floe and pack ice. Protean and shifting, it also could be fatally solid, and it made the geography of the Arctic unstable: a passage clear one week could be clogged the next, and even accurate charts could be made useless by the ice. The Archipelago was a daunting place to find your way around in.

A writer setting out to tell the story of 19th-century Arctic exploration faces a maze almost as shifting and as daunting as the Archipelago itself. Especially during the search for the Franklin Expedition at mid-century, the story is complex. In the decade between 1848, when the search for Franklin began, and 1859, when M'Clintock discovered some grisly remains on King William Iland, almost thirty naval and over-land expeditions joined the search. A writer has to juggle the names of explorers, famous in their day, but now known only to Arctic buffs, such as John and James Clark Ross, Rae, Pullen, Collinson, M'Clure, Austin, Ommanney, Richardson, Penny, DeHaven, Kane, Forsyth, Bellot, Kennedy, Belcher, Inglefield. M'Clintock—and names of ships, such as Plover, Herald, Enterprise, Investigator, Resolute, Intrepid, Assistance, Pioneer, Lady Franklin, Sophia, Felix, Advance, Rescue, Prince Albert, Isabel, Phoenix, Talbot, Fox. Then there are innumerable place-names, often the names of powerful personages scattered around the Arctic wastes like confetti and made confusing by repetition: Viscount Melville Sound, Melville Island, Melville Peninsula, Victoria Island, Victoria Strait, Prince of Wales Strait, Prince Regent Inlet, Prince Albert Sound (penetrating, it might be noted, deep into Victoria Island), Barrow Strait, Cornwallis Island, Bathurst Island, Boothia Peninsula (Felix Booth, the distiller and patron of Arctic exploration—there also is a Gulf of Boothia and a Cape Felix). Space and time become logistical problems: the writer has to move this explorer here, and that explorer there, in such and such ships, at such and such times, and then explain why they did or did not encounter each other. The danger of narrative confusion is great, and even greater is the danger of narrative monotony.

The latest writer to tell the story is Pierre Berton in The Arctic Grail. Berton accepts the challenge with a boldness worthy of a Robert M'Clure or a James Clark Ross. Not only does he tell the story of the Franklin Expedition and the search for it, he tells the story of all Arctic exploration in the 19th century in three overlapping stages: the search for the North-West Passage, the search for Franklin, and the attempt to reach the North Pole. The story has the scope, the heroism, the grandeur of a saga, and it also has the absurdity that is latent in any saga looked at with a cool eye. Berton sees both sides of it—and that is one of the many strengths of his book. Assisted by the plenitude of mini-maps scattered throughout the text (an excellent piece of book design), he tells the story clearly, informing the reader of who was where when, but avoiding the tedium and confusion that often accompanies such exposition. He uses much unpublished manuscript material, especially private journals and letters, and also much 19th-century periodical literature, handling both with intelligence and imagination. He puts the exploration into historical context by commenting on the motives that impelled it, and by demonstrating public and private responses to it. He has a unifying thesis: throughout the book his focus is on the terrible cost paid for cultural arrogance and inflexibility (especially the arrogance and inflexibility of naval establishments) in the face of such an austere and fickle environment as the Arctic. The thesis is not original, but it is sound and inevitable when the story is viewed with the imaginative common sense that he demonstrates in the book.

In a postscript, Berton rightly comments that The Arctic Grail is 'as much about explorers as it is about exploring'. He is deft in brief characterisation, an art that vivifies the entire work. Explorers who were just names in most earlier books become men with private lives and defined personalities in his. At the very outset he demonstrates this skill. There is Edward Parry, son of a cultivated and fashionable doctor in Bath—well-educated, intelligent, pious—a team-player very quick to use his charm and his connections to his own advantage, but also courageous and steadfast. There is John Ross; Parry's commander on his first venture into the Arctic, of relatively humble stock, a quirky intellectual Scot, proud, individualistic, and badly humiliated by a mistake on that venture that he never lived down. There is John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty (who always acted, according to Ross, like the First Secretary) and the power behind British Arctic exploration for four decades—of humble stock and attracted to persons, like Parry, more to the manor born, stubborn in defending his own often wrong ideas, high-handed in his use of power. And there is William Scoresby, a whaling captain and brilliant amateur scientist who knew more about the Arctic than all of the others put together. In the opening pages, Berton plays these men off against each other: Barrow in power, not liking John Ross and simply refusing to listen to the knowledgeable Scoresby, but taking Parry as his protégé; Scoresby, disdained by Barrow, denied any sort of naval command and forced to stand on the sidelines watching the amateurs do their thing; Ross, seeing mountains up Lancaster Sound where no mountains exist and turning his expedition back; Parry, second in command, not protesting at the time, but taking full advantage of Ross's error after the fact, and proving Ross wrong on his own expedition a year later. When Parry returned triumphant from his own expedition, one of the first letters of congratulation he received was from his former commander John Ross, who had good reason to dislike Parry because Parry had been openly critical of his command after they had returned to England. Writing to his parents, Parry sarcastically said that he should frame the letter and put it in the British Museum, and he noted that he would reply civilly, but in such a way as 'to prevent the possibility of his bringing on a correspondence, which is the game he now wants to play'. Such a glimpse into the private thinking of a man like Parry confirms the truth of Berton's assertion that in Arctic exploration 'personality and temperament were as significant as seamanship,' and that important aspects of the personality and temperament often were concealed from the public. Parry acted the paragon among explorers, but he also was a shrewd player of power games.

The importance of unpublished manuscript material in achieving something like a whole instead of a partial truth is well demonstrated in The Arctic Grail by the story of Elisha Kent Kane's 1853–1855 expedition ('The Second United States Grinnell Expedition'). Well-educated, handsome, frail (he suffered from rheumatic fever) but nevertheless remarkably tough, Kane made himself famous partly by his books on his two expeditions. Elegantly written and gorgeously illustrated, they enjoyed immense circulation, and Kane became a beau idéal in his country. After his death in Havana at the age of 36, his body was carried in state by train and boat from New Orleans to Philadelphia; the obsequies observed by communities along the way can be compared to those lavished on Lincoln's funeral train. The Second United States Grinnell Expedition had been a grinding ordeal. Ostensibly, its purpose was to search for Franklin, but Kane obviously hoped to find the 'Open Polar Sea' that many still believed lay beyond the encircling rim of ice—and perhaps even to reach the North Pole. Instead, he and his crew ended up virtually marooned on the west coast of Greenland for more than two years. The story is not entirely one of noble endurance, although Kane soft-peddles the nastiness. Frictions on board led to open rebellion and desertion several times. Kane rather coolly describes one such incident, when eight men separated from the expedition to sledge south. The implication is that Kane, although he disagreed with the plan, willingly acquiesced to it and wished the men a heartfelt godspeed. Actually, in his private journal he was pouring out hatred on them:

I cannot but feel that some of them will return broken down and suffering to seek a refuge on board. They shall have it to the halving of our last chip-but-but-but-if I ever live to get home-home! And should I meet Dr Hayes or Mr Bonsall or Mister Sonntag—let them look out for their skins. If I don't live to thrash them, why then, brother John, seek a solitary orchard and maull [sic] them for me. Don't honour them with a bullet and let the mauling be solitary save to the principals. It would hurt your Character to be wrestling with such low-minded sneaks.

Berton also quotes passages from the unpublished papers of John Wall Wilson, Kane's sailing master, who despised Kane and wrote that he was 'peevish, coarse, sometimes insulting … the most self-conceited man I ever saw.'

Berton's purpose is not to debunk heroes and heroism, but he knows that under sustained pressure (duration is crucial here, and was a crucial element in all 19th-century explorations—most expeditions took years rather than months), human beings often do lose control, at least temporarily. In The Arctic Grail, images of Elisha Kent Kane and of the other men who were caught up in the Polar passion are complex, or at least as complex as they can be when each individual has to be treated briefly as only one part of the saga. Berton avoids the sense of rushing over the surface; at times, indeed, he seems almost leisurely in his treatment of detail. For example, he cares enough about the individuality of the explorers to inform us about their love lives—Parry's unsuccessful pursuit of various young ladies, the stodgy Franklin's surprising marriages to two forceful and highly intelligent women, Kane's weird affair with the famous 'spirit rapper' Margaret Fox. This humanising detail makes them, in a subtle way, not less but more heroic. Fallible human beings, sometimes even weak and neurotic, not romantically conceived supermen, lived through those terrible ordeals.

Berton's eye for selected detail also strengthens his commentary on the historical and cultural implications of 19th-century Arctic exploration. His ideas here are not particularly original, but he gives them clearer and more forceful expression than they have been given in the past. One theme is the pig-headed stubbornness of the Admiralty in refusing to adjust its methods to the environment—in particular, by ignoring techniques of travel and survival that could have been learned from the Inuit. Many other writers have made the same point, but Berton's exposition is more effective. One of his best examples is drawn from late in the century, when the Navy should have learned from its past mistakes. When the Nares Expedition set out for the Pole in 1875, its leaders had been given the advice of George Rae among others. Rae was the most accomplished British traveller in the Arctic; he had lived with Inuit, and he had been willing to learn from them. For several pages, Berton quotes Rae's advice and describes how it was ignored. Rae urged that they learn how to make snow houses, citing some subtle advantages: 'When you use snow as a shelter your breath instead of condensing on your bedding gets condensed on the walls of the snow house, and therefore your bedding is relieved from nearly the whole of this.' An additional benefit of the snow house is, of course, that it does not have to be carried. The Nares Expedition manhauled heavy tents and paid a terrible price.

Berton sees that the flaws of the Navy were not just its own, but were cultural, and that behind the refusal to learn from the Inuit was an ethnocentric, even racist arrogance. And he sees that the arrogance was fed partly by the fuel of misguided and anachronistic chivalric idealism—an idealism that presumably separated civilised men from barbarians like the Inuit. Again, his eye for detail strengthens his argument. The manhauling of heavy naval (as against light Inuit) sledges was one of the most deadly flaws in the Navy's methods of Arctic exploration.

Strangely, to the English there was something noble, something romantic, about strong young men marching in harness through the Arctic wastes, enduring incredible hardships with a smile on their lips and a song in their hearts. They were like the knights of old, breaking new paths, facing unknown perils in their search for the Grail. The parallel is by no means inexact, for M'Clintock had given his sledges names that suggest knightly virtues—Inflexible, Hotspur, Perseverance, Resolute. Each sledge proudly carried a banner of heraldic design and each had its own motto ('Never Despair' … 'Faithful and Firm'), some even in Latin.

Inevitably in such a survey as The Arctic Grail, things are missing. In particular, one wishes Berton has commented more on aesthetic responses to the Arctic, and that the book were better illustrated: the small maps are excellent, but the other illustrations are second-rate, both in choice and in quality of reproduction. Berton does not even mention that George Back was an almost professional artist and graphics were an important aspect of Arctic exploration in the 19th century. Many of the explorers, like Back, were competent draughtsmen, and their sketches became the basis of work done by professional artists and illustrators; illustrations in widely-circulated books, magazines and newspapers, as well as paintings and dioramas that attracted large audiences to popular displays, gave the public the chilling and dramatic images of the Arctic that linger on today.

Berton writes in the tradition of a master, Alan Moorehead. He is more facile than Moorehead and perhaps more superficial, looser and perhaps more pointed in shaping his material, but he shares Moorehead's ability to assimilate masses of material to select what is telling, and to cast it into an appealing narrative without excessive distortion or oversimplification. He makes available to the common reader a saga that might otherwise be forgotten by all but historians. The drunken poet in Thomas Keneally's The Survivor berates the Antarctic explorer Ramsey for being so laconic about his experiences: 'What's the use of getting involved in a bloody saga if you won't tell a poet about it?' Berton may not be a poet, but he is a fluent writer of narrative prose, and The Arctic Grail is the best survey of 19th-century Arctic exploration yet written.

William Barr has translated and edited Heinrich Klutschak's Als Eskimo unter den Eskimos as Overland to Starvation Cove. Klutschak was a member of the Schwatka Expedition in 1878–80, and during part of the expedition travelled by himself with Inuit. His account, published in 1881, is valuable primarily as a description of Inuit life as observed by an intelligent and sympathetic outsider, its thrust made clear by the original title As an Eskimo among the Eskimos. Klutschak was not a professional anthropologist, but his observations were keen enough to earn the respect and gratitude some years later of the first true ethnographer to live with Inuit, Franz Boas. The translation and republication of such a work is important mainly to scholars and Arctic buffs, but its importance is indeed great to them.

Owen Beattie's and John Geiger's Frozen in Time is an account of Beattie's rather sensational researches into the causes of the Franklin disaster. The book is an 'as told to' story. Apparently Beattie has told Geiger the story, and Geiger has written it. After Beattie, an anthropologist, found high levels of lead in the bones of some of the Franklin victims scattered about King William Island, he received permission to exhume the bodies of three members of the expedition who had died on Beechey Island during the first winter of the expedition. Most of the book is a description of Beattie's own trips and of the exhumations, and the text is accompanied by some repellent photographs of the bodies.

The exhumed bodies also had a high lead content, and Beattie argues that the entire expedition was poisoned by faulty lead soldering in the tins that held much of the expedition's food supplies. Lead poisoning can lead to erratic behaviour and bad judgment—and this, according to Beattie, explains why the Franklin expedition make so many mistakes. The argument cannot be dismissed, but it has problems. First of all, we don't really know what happened to the Franklin Expedition—what the situation was, or what the reasoning was behind some of the decisions that were made—and so it is hard to specify just what the mistakes were. Often cited is the sheer madness of men on the verge of death hauling heavy boats over the ice loaded with such things as silverware and teak desks—but such madness can also be attributed to naval discipline and the sort of quixotic stupidity that Berton describes in The Arctic Grail. A more serious flaw lies in a missing statistic. Beattie makes much out of the fact that Inuit bones near the Franklin bones did not have a high lead content. That's interesting, but a more important statistic would be the lead content in Englishmen in general in the 19th century, and Beattie offers no such statistic. At one point in the book, he mentions that they might have had more lead in their systems than they do today, but he rapidly drops the subject. If in fact the average English homebody did have a high content of lead during that period, then probably the tin cans on the Franklin Expedition were not the cause of the disaster. I confess, however, that I was sufficiently persuaded by his description of the effects of lead poisoning to entertain the possibility that all of England suffered it in the century—that maybe the entire island was high on lead and stark raving mad.

Victor Dwyer (review date 10 September 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1828

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 36th work, The Great Depression, 1929 to 1939, excoriates prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and R.B. Bennett, business giants including the Eatons, and the press for a callous disregard for ordinary Canadians during those dark years. Said Berton: "I've done all the research, I've soaked it up, and I believe I've earned the right to say I think that this guy was an idiot and this guy was a clown." He added: "I've been accused of creating Canadian heroes. It's never been my purpose. In any case, the villains are much more interesting."

A gripping and often disturbing survey of the century's leanest years, The Great Depression is arguably Berton's best book. It crowns a career that has yielded some of the most popular titles produced in Canada, 15 of them looing back to the country's roots. Ever since the appearance of his first Canadian history book, Klondike (1958), which told the story of the Yukon gold rush of 1898, Berton has topped the domestic best-seller lists with lively glimpses into the past.

Among his most popular books have been The Last Spike (1971), about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, The Dionne Years (1977), which told the story of Canada's Dionne quintuplets, and Vimy (1986), an examination of the First World War battle in which the Canadian corps captured France's Vimy Ridge. But the restlessly curious—and highly nationalistic—author has also turned his attention to such disparate subjects as the Anglican Church, in The Comfortable Pew (1965), and the U.S. movie industry's misrepresentation of Canada, in Hollywood's Canada (1975).

For Berton, the effort has been financially rewarding. Mindful of his past success in the bookstores, Toronto-based McClelland & Stewart gave the author a $610,000 advance for The Great Depression and an upcoming series of four books about the history of Niagara Falls. And the millionaire author, who lives in Kleinburg, Ont., just north of Toronto, with his wife, Janet (they have eight grown children), will receive royalties of at least 15 per cent on sales of those five books—an arrangement that could net him well over $500,000 if they sell briskly. Said Berton of his publishers: "They treat me well, but then, I treat them pretty well, too." Indeed, the 75,000-copy first printing of The Great Depression reflects the publishing house's confidence in Berton.

His success has been the result of hard work and determination. "Just the basic research for my books routinely takes six months," Berton told Maclean's. "Those first months of research are really terribly depressing—because you don't think you have a story. It's not till you get in really deep that you get to the interesting stuff." In the case of The Great Depression, that groundwork, which the author carried out with the help of his full-time assistant, Barbara Sears, involved such daunting tasks as reading the 8,000-page report of the 1935 Regina Riot Inquiry Commission. The hefty document was an examination of the causes of a riot that broke out between the police and several hundred relief-camp workers travelling from Vancouver to Ottawa, where they had planned to stage a protest rally.

Berton also put advertisements in newspapers to find people who had interesting stories to tell about the Depression. The author then travelled across Canada for dozens of interviews, including one with octogenarian Steve Brodie of Victoria, who recounted crossing the country in a boxcar 75 times because he could not find a steady job.

Berton himself was relatively untouched by the Depression. In 1929, when the stock market crashed, he was a nine-year-old living in the Yukon, where the events to the south had only a mild impact. The following year, his father, Francis, retired from his job as a civil servant in the North and moved the family to Toronto. Then, in 1932, the family relocated to Victoria, where Pierre went to high school and college. With his father's small pension, the Bertons lived a modest but comfortable life. "Frankly," said Berton, "for me, in many ways the Thirties was a wonderful time."

As the author plunged into his research, he realized just how devastating the era was for a lot of other Canadians. "What I didn't want to do was color the book with too much nostalgia," he said, "because, for most people, it wasn't a good time." Describing the "mindless optimism" that prevailed in "an overdeveloped, overstocked country" in the 1920s, The Great Depression vividly captures the abject terror that gripped ordinary people when the stock markets collapsed and the capitalist system ground to a halt.

Like Berton's best historical works, the book's strength lies in his ability to blend detailed accounts of influential personalities, events and movements with stories about the lives of everyday Canadians. There are scores of fascinating anecdotes, including the story of Toronto bookkeeper Lottie Nugent, who invested her life savings, and borrowed heavily, to play the market. A few months later, unable to repay her loans, she calmly entered her room in a downtown boarding house and killed herself by turning on the gas.

Despite the hard times that followed the crash, many of Canada's political and economic leaders chose to ignore the misery experienced by many of their fellow Canadians—and Berton seems to take pleasure in describing the elite's shortcomings in scathing detail. He portrays the Liberal Mackenzie King as alternately smug and hypocritical in the face of great decisions. In his diary entry for Jan. 1, 1930—three months after the crash—King thanked God "with all my heart for protecting me through the year now drawing to a close."

Although the Prime Minister enthused in his journals about the "spirit of mutual aid" that informed his Christian beliefs, he steadfastly refused to match those sentiments with adequate federal money for the victims of the crash. In fact, he wrote elsewhere in his diary that he hoped those who still had their jobs would be selfish enough to ignore the jobless and would not add their voices to the growing chorus demanding unemployment benefits.

Berton paints an equally unflattering picture of the country's private employers, who, he maintains, exploited the vulnerability of their workforce to profit from the Depression. The New York City-based Woolworth chain of department stores, for one, formulated a policy of keeping its female employees on call, "never knowing," Berton writes, "when they would be offered work, and unable to look for other jobs." In 1932, the company demanded, and got, a 10-per-cent wage cut from its employees—while showing a net profit of $1.8 million.

The T. Eaton Co., meanwhile, made it impossible for some of its employees to take rests at its Toronto clothing factory. Winnifred Wells, who worked as an "examiner" there, testified to the Royal Commission on Price Spreads in 1935 that, since the Depression, Eaton's had removed the stool that she would occasionally use to take brief breaks. She reported that she hated going home on the streetcar, "because if I sat down I could not get up again, my knees and my legs would be so stiff." In Quebec, several of the biggest garment manufacturers implemented industry-wide blacklists of employees who had been fired for complaining of being paid below the legal minimum wage.

For many of the millions who could not find work, conditions were even worse. In 1932, unemployment reached a staggering 36 per cent in Ontario. To single men, the government of Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, who led the country from 1930 to 1935, offered what Berton terms "the gift of 20 cents a day" to work in one of dozens of relief camps spread across the Canadian countryside. Breeding grounds of bacteria and disease, the poorly funded camps were virtual prisons for the men who lived in them. They were finally closed after King's re-election in 1936—but only after the bloody Regina Riot of the previous year, in which the RCMP shot 12 unarmed former relief-camp inmates on their way to a protest in Ottawa. Writes Berton: "Although the Canadian government tried to make it appear that the relief camps were part of a plan to save the youth of the country, the real reason was to save the country from its youth—to get the jobless out of the way and prevent revolution."

According to Berton, the fight against real and alleged Communists became a routine excuse for federal, provincial and local governments to trample on democratic rights. Individuals labelled "Communist" by the federal authorities were routinely deported—including some of German descent who ended up in Hitler's death camps. Berton recounts that one man, Hans Kist, was sent back to his native Germany by government officials after he participated in a strike in Fraser Mills, B.C. The Nazis, agreeing with Canada's assessment of Kist as a "thoroughgoing troublemaker," tortured him to death.

City officials in Sudbury, Ont., banned all meetings of more than two persons after Communists there tried to organize nickel miners in 1930. Seven years later, Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis introduced the notorious padlock law, which gave police in that province the power to lock any building used for what officials considered to be "Communist gatherings."

Not until the book's closing chapter does Berton's anger at the ineptitude and hypocrisy of such men as King and Bennett reach its peak. Priming for war, King suddenly became generous with the public purse. Interspersing the narrative with earlier quotes by both Bennett and King about the danger of spending public money for the common good, Berton demonstrates his genuine contempt for those former Canadian leaders. Relating a story of two former relief-camp workers who meet on a warship heading for Germany, Berton spells out the sad irony of their situation: "The government had once paid them 20 cents a day and treated them as bums. Now it was paying 6 1/2 times as much and treating them as heroes."

Although The Great Depression presents a searing attack on governmental and economic elites, Berton says that he did not set out to write a political tract—"It's not a left-wing book, but you can't write a book about the Depression without being considered left-wing, because the right-wingers were in charge, and they bungled it." He added, "Those are the facts; it's about time this book was written."

With passion and fury, Pierre Berton has cast a harsh light on one of the darkest corners of Canada's past. The country's image of itself may never be quite the same.

Anna Chiota (review date 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

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 cause. Other titles not reviewed cover battles at Detroit and Queenston Heights.

Berton covers this historical material in a manner both vivid and engaging. As adults have been drawn to his popularized histories, so too should a younger readership. The third-person narrative form, interspersed with direct quotations, draws the reader into history. One cannot help but sympathise with the soldiers when the physical conditions they had to endure are described in the following manner: "Harnessed five to a sleigh, [the soldiers] hauled their equipment through snow and water for eleven days … Provisions and men were soon soaked through. The days were bad but the nights were a horror." The military leaders and individual soldiers are given human faces in some broad portrayals that are not alwys flattering or uncritical. Human error, failings or procrastination determine the course of the war as much as bravery, decisiveness, and heroic acts. Pierre Berton, the storyteller, excels in weaving the facts, events and people of the period into compelling stories.

As well, there is no lack of factual detail, and peppered throughout the text are maps and illustrations highlighting military features such as attack routes, weaponry, and uniforms. A good index makes the information accessible if the books are being used for historical study. On the same note, an eleven-page overview of the war appears at the beginning of each title in the series and gives a broad perspective connecting the individual events to the general development of Canadian history. While useful, the repetition of this relatively lengthy preface in each slender volume is perhaps unnecessary.

In his historical analysis, Berton presents the War of 1812 as a civil war, a "war fought by men and women on both sides of a border that all had ignored until hostilities broke out…." With many settlers being former Americans or related to such, this fact is relevant in determining the sentiment of civilians or even the militia, but one wonders how strongly it applied to the British and American military leaders and the regular army. This approach also has little relevance to the Indians who participated and to whom Berton assigns an integral role. Their support of the British and Canadian cause resulted from the American policy to undertake the total destruction of the Indians as signalled by the Battle of Tippecanoe. In turn, such Indian leaders as Tecumseh, were "determined to lead the forces of his confederacy across the border to fight beside the British against the common enemy."

A second theme that Berton attempts to develop is one of the war as a foundation of Canadian nationalism. Having repelled the giant from the south in defense of their settlements, Canadians "developed both a sense of pride and sense of community" that in future would forge a nation. This view loses a little of the glory when at times he shows that victory often came through luck, bad weather or some other prosaic event. As well, Berton is a little inconsistent when he refers to the "real victors, who, being Indians, were really losers." The intent to provide some continuity is admirable, but at times the result is strained.

Overall, there is little doubt that this series will be successful. It provides the excitement of a good adventure story with a wealth of historical data. These titles also fill a gap that should provide some curriculum support. One should note that the "Battles of the War of 1812" is actually a subset of another series entitled Adventures in Canadian History that will cover topics from the war to the opening of the Canadian West and is targeted for children twelve and up.

Robert Nicholas Bérard (review date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1048

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 doubt, made a prudent investment in this series. There is a dearth of well-written Canadian history aimed at young people, particularly at the twelve-to-fourteen year age group for which this series has been prepared. The clear type and the low price of these books will make them particularly attractive for purchase by schools and libraries. Finally, who better to interpret the history of Canada, particularly the story of the War of 1812, to young people than Canada's most prolific and popular pop historian, Pierre Berton? A decade ago, Berton won substantial critical acclaim from academic historians as well as the general public for The Invasion of Canada (1980) and Flames Across the Border (1981), his treatment of the War of 1812 for an adult readership. He knows his subject, and he is, perhaps, Canada's most widely-read author.

Unfortunately, the likely commercial success of these volumes and their value as classroom resources must be set against the disappointment that will be felt by many teachers of history that such a talented writer has done so little with his material. Despite Berton's best efforts to bring into high relief the drama and irony of the North American aspect of the Napoleonic Wars, the books are staid and flat, too heavily laden with the minutiae of textbook history to be compelling historical fiction and too breathless and melodramatic to be a key source for historical analysis.

Both books open with a common introduction to "the peculiar war," which Berton characterizes as a "civil war" fought in large measure by people who did not want to fight each other. The author summarizes his view that this indecisive conflict, whose follies and excesses he repeatedly notices, yielded little benefit to either the Americans or the Indian nations which found themselves drawn into battle but was a decisive event in Canadian history, one which "marked the first faint stirrings of a Canadian nation." It is significant that Berton says very little about the War of 1812 in Québec and nothing about the Atlantic region. It lends support to the idea that, in the perspective of many of our intelligentsia, the "Canadian nation" bears a striking resemblance to Upper Canada.

Berton has taken pains to ensure that he has got his facts straight, even to the point of drawing his dialogue from contemporary sources, and this constitutes one of the strengths of the books. He has also tried to avoid the partisan chauvinism that marks many older histories of the War of 1812. He has sought and found heroes and villains, the silly and the sagacious, on both sides in the conflict, although he leaves little doubt about his favourites; and each individual figure, from the brave, gallant Isaac Brock to the equally-noble Shawnee chief Tecumseh to the "pompous, self-important" American general Alexander Smyth is presented as less complex than we might expect. Berton also pursues his long-standing concern—see his Why We Act Like Canadians (1982)—with distinguishing the Canadian from the American national character through contrasts in historical experience. Thus, in The Capture of Detroit, he contrasts the relatively peaceful and law-abiding "pioneer" community of Upper Canada with the intemperate and violent "frontier" society to the south: "No Daniel Boones stalked the Canadian forests, ready to knock off an Injun with a Kentucky rifle or do battle over an imagined slight." It will be a matter of little consequence if Americans find the comparison inaccurate or overdrawn, but the publishers may well expect serious criticism from aboriginal groups who will no doubt take issue with Berton's references to drinking and scalping.

A major drawback, for many readers, will be the narrow military, even strategic focus of much of the books. To be fair, Berton does try to describe the nature of Upper Canadian society and community life, but more often he lapses into overlong descriptions of armaments and battle plans which may not engage the interest of more than a minority of adolescent boys. It is too difficult to find the links between these events and the lives of contemporary Canadian teenagers to make these books a popular choice on drugstore shelves. At the same time, Berton raises some provocative questions about war and heroism. Although some may find the language a bit strong, Berton's descriptions of the horrors of the conflict—"Blood and brains spattered the walls and the gowns of some women who had sought refuge nearby"—underscore his determination to avoid excess glorification of war. He also invites a reappraisal of the American general William Hull, sentenced to death by a military court for cowardice in his surrender of Detroit, an act which averted an almost certain slaughter of American soldiers and civilians.

Berton's narrative is, in general, forceful, although the text is littered with annoying metrically-correct parentheticals—thus, John Norton, military leader of a Mohawk band, is referred to in The Death of Isaac Brock as "a strapping six-foot (two m) Scot"—and miles and kilometers appear randomly throughout. The author displays his recognized skill at deploying characters and events for maximum surprise and impact, and he never condescends to younger readers. In fact, while reading, one can almost hear Berton's pleasant and familiar voice narrating a CBC documentary on the events described. Unfortunately, the comparison that comes immediately to mind is with the acclaimed American Public Broadcasting System's award-winning documentary series, The Civil War. It was the genius of that production to relate a massive military conflict in an age more different from our own than most people immediately recognize to the concerns of ordinary people. That series set a standard for popular history that Pierre Berton perhaps could, but has not in these volumes, attained.

Eric Henderson (review date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947

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 with Canada at all. For example, Dr. Kane of the Arctic Seas, the third in the "Exploring the North" series, tells the story of an American from Philadelphia who searches for a lost Englishman in the seas off the Greenland coast. The connection with Canada is tenuous at best.

Indeed, it seems as though Berton is driven in his choice of subjects less by their historical relevance than by the personal appeal of a character. Berton likes stories of the Promised Land, stories of ambitious mavericks doomed to disillusionment who engage in wild, idealistic quests for honour, fame or wealth—the search for Klondike gold and for the fabled North West Passage to the East are the subjects of two series within the larger "Adventures in Canadian History" series.

That these questers weren't Canadians or that their exploits weren't formative events in Canada's history seems incidental to the interest Berton creates in his roguish, sometimes cruel, but always persistent characters, such as Robert John McClure (the discoverer of the North West Passage in Trapped in the Arctic) and Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, both of whom lead expeditions into the polar regions, braving ferocious hardships and driving their crews to the brink of death to satisfy vaulting ambitions.

In A Prairie Nightmare, Berton describes the plight of 2,000 Britains who become dupes of a scheme by the Christian missionary Isaac Montgomery Barr to start an all-British colony in the area of the Saskatchewan-Alberta border. Barr, more interested in personal profit than the plan's practicality, convinces his "flock" that harsh prairie life is much like the pastoral agrarian life of rural England they are leaving behind.

Barr is a representative Berton "anti-hero," one whose ambitious cravings have consequences beyond those he intended. Barr's Colony of naïve tenderfeet eventually prospers to become the site of the city of Lloydminster. Berton's interest here, as in his popular adult histories, is in the role personal ambition played in Canada's development.

Still, with the exception of Steel Across the Plains, about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway from Winnipeg to Calgary, the later books in the series remain examples of Canadian marginalia, stories of flawed and flaky individuals, rather than nation-builders. Essentially, they are foot-notes to Canadian history.

Invariably, the characters who occupy centre stage in Berton's histories are British, and to a lesser degree, Americans, perhaps giving young readers the impression that the contribution of people of other nationalities to Canada's unfolding nationhood has been minimal to non-existent.

One also notices a disturbing tendency toward racial stereotyping. Whenever Swedes appear in the two books on the Klondike gold rush and in Steel Across the Prairies, they are described as bear-like, hard-drinking oafs; "feelings of superiority" accounted for the inability of the British to survive in the Far North, according to Berton in Parry of the Arctic.

Americans, too, or "Yanks," as Berton refers to them at one point in The Klondike Stampede, are victims of similar stereotyping. Americans objected to the interference of the Mounties as they crossed into Canada to take part in the 1897 Gold Rush. "In keeping with the American tradition of individualism … they wanted to drown themselves if they wished," says Berton, engaging here in a train of censorious moralizing also present elsewhere. In A Prairie Nightmare, for example, he cautions his young readers to "remember … that even today Canadians sometimes want to reject new arrivals because they seem unsuitable for life in Canada."

Each book is accompanied by drawings and maps. Occasionally, the illustrations reveal an inconsistency with the text. For example, two maps in Jane Franklin's Obsession purport to show the area of the Arctic charted by Sir John Franklin. But in the first map, showing the known Arctic before Franklin, King William Island (where Franklin was believed to have disappeared) is drawn as an island, and Berton has already noted that Franklin believed it to be a peninsula.

One drawing in Parry of the Arctic is a scene from a high-spirited theatrical performance held on board Parry's ship, the Fury. Berton has described the ship's isolation, a gloomy landscape without birds, animals or "cheerful natives." Yet Inuit appear prominently in the drawing, gesticulating in bafflement at the Englishmen's on-stage antics.

Berton's ability to animate the past through his portrayal of strong, magnetic characters is, perhaps, his major trademark. Many of the books in the "Adventures in Canadian History" series succeed in this aim and will undoubtedly maintain the interest of young readers who would ordinarily never read history outside of the classroom.

But if these books are ever to be used as tools for learning, they need to focus more sharply on significant events in Canadian history. In addition, Berton should try to convey greater historical authenticity. Far more useful than the somewhat pretentious indices that accompany the short books would be a list of recommend readings for students.

Such a bibliographic resource would not only enable Berton's readers to pursue an interest that developed out of their reading, but would also allow students and teachers alike to examine what Berton calls his "unimpeachable," though unnamed, historical sources.

Anne Denoon (review date November 1995)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

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, visible-minority-free milieu in which only the widespread anti-Semitism of the time allowed personal tolerance to be put on the line.

(The modern types, including Berton, who formed a co-operative community in rural Kleinburg in 1948 inverted the then commonplace "restrictive" clause to exclude known bigots, but he does not record whether any Jews joined.)

In the book's engaging early chapters, one of which is aptly entitled "Hustling," the young Berton is driven to extraordinary feats of journalistic endurance not only by innate ambition, but also by rapidly escalating, domestic responsibilities. He became, as he puts it, a "jack-of-all-writing-trades," churning out magazine articles, film and theatre scripts, government pamphlets, and anything else that paid or kept his name in print. Add his first books, his daily(!) newspaper column, the start of his enduring career as a radio and television personality, and you have the familiar, ubiquitous Pierre Berton of the 1960s onward.

Unfortunately, once success arrives—by his reckoning, about ten years ater his arrival in Toronto—My Times turns into a sometimes tedious chronicle of triumphs. Berton's unabashed enjoyment of fame and notoriety is rather endearing; after all, honest arrogance, to which Berton candidly admits, is more appealing than false modesty. But, over more than four hundred pages, the accumulation of such blush-inducing quotations as "he is one of the most fascinating, talented, and interesting persons in Canada" does take its toll. And while a certain amount of "and then I wrote" is unavoidable in a journalistic memoir, perhaps only the Great Recycler (an epithet he cheerfully accepts) would reprint a newspaper column from the early 60s almost in its entirety.

Another minor irritant is his refinement of the art of namedropping, in which well-known people are introduced by their familiar diminutives (Pat Watson, Bill Mitchell, Bob McMichael, Betsey Kilbourn …) so that the reader may miss a beat before belated recognition comes.

Still, memorable anecdotes (visiting Robert Service in his Monaco villa, for one) and snappy writing counterbalance such annoyances. Although most of My Times is short on introspection (a defect in an autobiography, but probably an asset in a career like the indefatigable Berton's), the epilogue finds him in elegiac mode. For Berton, as for other liberal crusaders of his generation, being publicly called a racist during the brouhaha surrounding the 1994 Writing Through Race conference was an experience that seems almost to have broken his spirit. But only almost, for he leaves the final verdict on his achievements to his faithful readers and fans, and My Times is really for them.

Stephen Smith (review date July 1996)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

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 nothing harsher than while somebody may find this to be a funny book, and while I could respect their choice in doing so in the spirit of pluralism, they should not try to contact me because we'd have nothing much to talk about: that's what I was thinking as I made a way through Berton.

What I wasn't banking on was defeat. I'm talking Montcalm here on the plains at Quebec: utter defeat (though without the loss of a continental toehold). I can't remember the last time I got to the end of a book feeling so vanquished, so much like the book itself—hilarity-free. After Farewell to the Twentieth Century, I had no humour left in me, just an abdominal emptied-out feeling that woke me up wheezing in the night.

What Berton meant to do in the 50 or so short pieces herein was satirize us where we sit late in the century and show us in North America to be muddled, hopelessly foibled folk. There's one about James Bond standing trial for sexual harassment. There's one about the crazy old population explosion. There's one—a real chestnut—about new regulations for the CRTC. As the bok jacket helpfully points out, "Berton uses a number of literary devices to make his points: Fables, First-person reports, History as it might be written in the future, Found documents…." What it doesn't report is that while Berton deals now and then in potentially funny properties, he always finds a way of flattening them to particle-board with a style that might best be classified as deadpan bulldozer.

What it might look like from where you sit is that I just don't know funny. Listen, apart from this bout with Berton, I've never had a problem that way. Give me a page of Bill Richardson or Ian Frazier or Garrison Keillor or Flann O'Brien or anyone not trying to force the issue and I'll curdle a cat laughing. There. That's better: I've got some feeling back in my sense of humour. With any luck, I'll be up to some light grinning this weekend.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Principal Works

Next

Further Reading