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Extraordinary Canadians: Norman Bethune

Former governor general embraces a Canadian physician as the true Canadian hero he was

By David Wilson

Extraordinary Canadians: Norman Bethune
By Adrienne Clarkson
Penguin Canada ($26)

Dr. Norman Bethune is a household name to 1.5 billion Chinese, which probably makes him the most famous Canadian ever. The fact that he’s not nearly as well regarded in Canada clearly troubles former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson. In this compact new biography, one of 18 volumes in Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series, Clarkson urges us to get over our qualms about politics and personality flaws and embrace Bethune as the true Canadian hero he was.

Like Bethune biographers before her, Clarkson is awed by the man’s almost superhuman energy and determination, whether he was inventing mobile blood-transfusion systems amid the carnage of 1930s Spain or saving the lives of thousands of Chinese revolutionaries with little more than his bare hands. She is intrigued by the passion that drove him and attributes a significant part of it to his upbringing as the son of a stern Presbyterian minister in the rocky landscape of central Ontario.

In many ways, Bethune lived his life in rebellion against the idea, broadcast from the pulpits of his youth, that humans don’t have much say in whether they’ll be saved or damned. Bethune, Clarkson observes, was determined to “live his life, demanding everything of it that it had to give, salvation or no salvation.” He threw himself into the secular idea that humans can freely choose to build a better world, teaching English to immigrants in the hardscrabble lumber camps of northern Ontario, providing free health care in the slums of Detroit and Montreal and joining the worldwide struggle against fascism in the 1930s.

In surveying his transformation, Clarkson sheds light on a little-explored but fascinating chapter in the history of Canadian political thought. Her comfort with the fact that Bethune’s passions burned brightest under the banner of communism may unsettle some readers, but it is precisely this sort of squeamishness that Clarkson is urging us to get over.

Great people are rarely saintly. Bethune was no exception. He was impatient, hot-tempered and occasionally cruel. Clarkson clearly finds some of his behaviour repugnant, yet in the end she asks us to measure Bethune by his accomplishments, not his flaws. As Clarkson sees it, the more seriously we take heroes such as Norman Bethune, the more seriously we take ourselves as a nation.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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