Bock's fictionalized account of the life of Dr. Bethune is both a chilling reminder of the challenges facing us and a celebration of its many rewards for those who persevere midst great hardship. This mixture of the tragic and the triumphant comes out in a story that touches on the major highlights of Bethune's life in Canada,France, Spain, the States, and China as he taught school, served in the trenches, studied medicine, and introduced the field hospital concept as a way of saving lives during war. All these varied experiences are effectively welded together in a journey that allows the reader travel with Bethune as he works out important issues in his life: love, duty, death,relationships, and the sanctity of life. The confirmation he receives on each of these inquires from his meetings with fellow beings is that man is essentially a raging contradiction of values. If 'he' is not shedding another's blood in combat, 'he' is trying to save his life through a blood transfusion or surgery. If 'he' isn't gravitating to someone in love, 'he' is running away in shame. The story is compelling by the way Bock takes you into Bethune's mind as he wrestles with where he wants to go in life in respect in serving the greater good of humanity, something impressed on him by his religious parents. Each step of the way, he gets passionately involved in trying to resolve a number of world crisis, only to be frustrated by his inability to bring the brutal reality of history together with the needs of humanity. His close- yet often -strained fatherly relationship with his young assistant Ho in China during the Long March is one such example of the vast gulf fixed between one's truest intentions and one's severest limitations when it comes to being one's brother's keeper. Bethune definitely has a conscience in the story and tries to stay true to it even those around him would try to compromise it. Bock crafts a great tale. Well worth the read.
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 to
that 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]
on November 6, 2006
by R. Howard
Review of The Communist's Daughter by Dennis Bock
Dennis Bock's latest novel, The Communist's Daughter, is an insightful and riveting story, masterfully told. In a number of letters lovingly and tenderly written to the daughter he has never met, a fictional account of the famous Canadian doctor Norman Bethune unfolds. In the difficult task of examining his life, he hopes that should the letters ever reach this child for whom he longs, she will be "old enough to understand and young enough to forgive." Bock draws out what turns out to be a confession in a series of well-integrated flashbacks at a pace that, while suspenseful, demands the reader luxuriate over every word.
As a medic at the front, Norman Bethune is a credible eyewitness. The story is painted in clear, rich language. The effect of Bock's work is evocative of Picasso's Guernica; the minute details of this literary counterpart almost overwhelm the senses. Without being maudlin or overly sentimental, Bock's portrayals of the battlefield brings forth tears and a pervading sense of both the cruelty and the futility of war. A deep story, simply told.
It has been said that all war stories are anti-war stories. As Dr. Bethune observes, despite his commitment to the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War and his adoration of Mao and his vision of China, "There is never a right reason" for war. Contradictions and contrasts abound. Death and suffering on both sides of any war are commonplace; an additional horror is the protective armor of complacency that develops in some of the medical core at the front. The complacency of the public, those who value freedom but are far removed from the hideousness of the front, is soundly thrashed. (The allusions to small town Ontario are telling.) Bethune opines, however, that unfortunately, brutality "is man's first and last state." Norman Bethune finds communism in the poverty of the streets resulting from the "doomed experiment of capitalism", and makes his final break with Gd in the trenches.
If there is a fault to this novel, it is that because of the richness of details, the reader periodically must remind himself that though it is based on a real person and many historical incidents, it is in fact a work of fiction. The general impression of the struggles of the period, however, is accurate. Dennis Bock, through Norman Bethune's voice, waxes deeply philosophical throughout the novel. Although there is no clearcut conclusion to the story, the ending is strangely satisfying.
Despite the graphic depiction of the horrors of war and its incumbent betrayals, what one can ultimately take away from The Communist's Daughter is optimism: in contrast with the horrors of war, Bethune raptures over "the wonder of birth... each single day is a wonder and privilege to behold".
This novel is multifaceted in that the metamorphosis of Bethune is an integral part of the whole. Whether the thoughts attributed to Dr. Norman Bethune are actually the beliefs of Dennis Bock, the reader comes away with a great deal on which to reflect and gratitude for Bock's having written this book!