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Loving portraits, history from the 'dead beat'

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Working the Dead Beat

50 Lives That Changed Canada

By Sandra Martin

Anansi, 427 pages, $30

TWENTY years ago, journalists saddled with the task of writing obituaries were pitied by some of their colleagues.

It was the preserve of rookies who were just out of journalism school, or warhorses who were easing towards retirement.

Much of that has changed in the digital age. Some famous folks who know their days are numbered will now gladly consent to be interviewed on video, knowing full well that their thoughts won't become public until after they have shaken off this mortal coil.

Sandra Martin, who owns the "dead beat" at Toronto's Globe & Mail, has put together a wonderful bathroom reader for people who love to learn more about Canada's recent history and like to collect tidbits about the rich and famous as well as interesting people they never knew.

All of those Martin profiles in Working the Dead Beat have eclipsed since the dawn of the millennium. She starts at the top with former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who left us 12 years ago this month.

The book ends with Donald Marshall, the Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq whose troubled life included spending more than a decade behind bars for a murder that he did not commit.

Other icons Martin profiles in the first section include economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who had the ear of several Democratic presidents in the U.S. beginning with Franklin Roosevelt. She also writes about jazz legend Oscar Peterson, hockey's Maurice Richard, and writers Pierre Berton and June Callwood.

In general, Martin presents us with loving portraits of people she obviously admires a great deal, although a few warts are allowed to get through. She talks about Berton's fondness for a well-known old-boys' club in Toronto where monogamy was forgotten after liquid lunches.

In a later section, she celebrates literary lions Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler but doesn't shy away from some of their sins.

Her Manitoba references are relatively few. Former Premier Duff Roblin shares a chapter with New Brunswick's Louis Robichaud. Martin lauds Roblin for his many achievements in overhauling this province's education system, but she says he earned a reputation as eccentric by playing the bagpipes after hours in the halls of the Legislative Building, dressed in a kilt.

Each of the book's five sections begins with a few pages of rambling notes. In one of these is a rather fleeting reference to Connie Rooke, who was fired after an abbreviated term as president of the University of Winnipeg in 2002.

Martin calls Rooke, who died of cancer in 2008, a personal friend. This caused her considerable difficulty when she had to include details of Rooke's stormy U of W tenure in her Globe obit, as well as those of Rooke's troubled marriage to novelist Leon Rooke. Why Martin felt Rooke did not rate a more complete profile remains a mystery.

Throughout the book, Martin deals with the evolution of the obituary as a journalistic staple. In the process, she effectively addresses questions that many of us probably have about how we might wish to be remembered after we are gone.

Martin also provides many reminders, if we need them, that recent public life in Canada has included many fascinating and worthwhile characters.

Roger Currie, a veteran Winnipeg writer and broadcaster, has lots of life in him. He blogs at rogercurrie.org

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2012 J8

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