There's a rising number of novelists using fiction to produce biographies. For some of these, imaginary children prove a useful ploy through which to depict a life. Peter Carey's "True History of the Kelly Gang" is an outstanding example: the notorious bushranger writes a long missive to an unseen daughter in the midst of a siege by policemen. Dennis Bock has followed a similar course, with a similar character. Norman Bethune, who resides among the icons of Canadian history, is given us as a man beset on many sides by a variety of enemies. In this case, it's the Japanese Imperial Army in China, the Fascisti in Spain and scattered personal opponents - and his own father. Bock, using Bethune's "letters" to a daughter he's never seen, applies well-honed skills to animate an idol.
Bethune, of course, is the man best known for inventing the M.A.S.H. unit to rapidly treat the wounded in military engagements. Bringing experience of military field hospitals from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, Bethune relocates to China where the Japanese invasion is being resisted by Mao's Communist forces. During his shift of site, he has learned of his daughter, born of his Madrid lover, Kajsa von Rothman. A Swedish anarchist, Kajsa brings light into Bethune's sombre outlook. Bock's portrayal of Bethune's view of her well captures a man's intense sense of real love discovered after a long, sometimes futile quest.
In the letters to his daughter, Bethune imparts his life in brief, but intense sketches. Bock doesn't provide a sequential scenario, but lets Bethune skip about in time and space. In a less skillful writer, this would be distracting and perhaps difficult. As a series of seven missives, listed as "Envelope One" through "Seven", each titled in typescript in the way Bethune might have produced with his dilapidated typewriter, the only focus is how the surgeon might have imparted his life to his daughter. We learn that his Ontario childhood lacked stability. Bethune's parents, particularly his father, were evangelicals, leaving Norman with minimal options. At a young age, however, he learned that the road to Damascus is not a one-way street. Revelation can lead away from divine mysteries and dogmas as readily as attract the unwary to them. For Norman, it was the knowledge that he, and every other human is alone. That isolation can be alleviated only by people who are also aware of that state and take steps to reach out to their fellows. For Bethune, the Communist Party was a means tothat fellowship and medicine a practical manifestation of it.
The medical treatments, particularly in China, dominates much of the text. Not the clinical details, although those are present, but the personalities Bethune can identify and convey them. The Chinese were unused to Westerners, and Bethune's commanding presence often awed them. In his effort to provide care, he's faced with shortages, particularly of blood. With much transfusion experience gained in Spain, the doctor's efforts were baulked by the Chinese fear of taking blood from their bodies. In one instance, needing a particular type, Bethune resorts to having the donor strapped to a bed while the blood is taken. Bethune's complex character is revealed in his respect for the donor's fears, while enraged at the obstinence based on superstition. His rages in China were common, even his assistant Ho being subjected to Bethune's tantrums.
Has Bock depicted his subject in photographic clarity, or invented a modified Bethune for our interest and enjoyment? Only Bethune himself can answer that. What the author has given us is a plausible person of Bethune's outlook and experience. There will be those who grouse about this or that invention or missing element. Those are false grievances. In creating the daughter, Bock must modify the man he's thoroughly researched. Whatever his successes at field medicine or vagaries of temper, Bethune is shown as a real human in his letters to the daughter. The title is purposely misleading as Bethune's "communism" is much less an element in his life than saving lives or opposing Fascist imperialism. In Spain, it is the Fascisti who rebelled against a legally elected Republican government, and in China it is that nation that has been invaded by Japan, not the other way around. While Bock's Bethune may do little preaching about those circumstances, he leaves his "daughter" [and the reader] with no doubt of where the faults lie. This is a book portraying a sensitive man, written by someone who understands how to reveal those feelings. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]