Bethune celebrated in outstanding, detailed biography


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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/06/2011 (4312 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


The Life of Norman Bethune

By Roderick Stewart and Sharon Stewart

McGill-Queens University Press, 478 pages, $40

HENRY Norman Bethune (1890-1939) is best known as the Ontario-born doctor who threw in his lot, and ultimately lost his life as a result, with the cause of communism.

Bethune has been for many years a hero among the Chinese, although with the passage of time and the evolution of less spartan virtues, his standing is somewhat lower than it was before.

But his life, here celebrated in an outstanding new biography, is a stirring epic of leadership and achievement.

Though the book is published by an academic press, its value is not restricted to scholars. It is very accessible to the general reader as well.

Bethune signed on against Franco and the Falange in Spain in 1936 and 1937, and then fought with Mao Zedong and the People’s Liberation Army in China from 1937 to his death late in 1939.

The authors, the Ontario-based husband and wife team of Roderick and Sharon Stewart, point out that he was a restless, somewhat aggravating man who achieved much in several fields. He was an excellent surgeon and an innovative diagnostician in the treatment of tuberculosis.

He revolutionized the delivery of blood on the battlefield, thus saving many lives. He was an accomplished painter, poet, broadcaster, playwright and polemicist.

Described as a “scalawag,” he was not exactly inundated with close friends and was an almost predatory ladies man.

Roderick Stewart is a professional writer who has penned several earlier books on Bethune, while his wife is a journalist. This is an exquisitely written and impressively researched work. Of its 478 pages, fully 87 represent the index and the end notes, etc.

The 1930s, the Stewarts point out, were times of political radicalism and upheaval. The booming optimism of the 19th century had all but dissipated after “the war to end all wars” (a frequent name for the Great War of 1914-1918).

The political process became dominated by the likes of Warren Harding and Stanley Baldwin, men who would do anything to avoid a challenge.

And the rising tide brought to the top Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and their revolutionary-left counterparts Stalin, Lenin and Mao. Many young intellectuals joined the cause of revolution.

Bethune was one such. The child of a long and distinguished line of Huguenot teachers, doctors and Presbyterian ministers, he was brought up with a powerful sense of duty and a conviction that the workings of God among humankind were complex and mysterious. Later on, he pronounced that Marxism was the new (and complete) religion.

Early in his career, he saw for himself the ravages of the capitalist system through his work as a family physician, and researcher as he built his reputation through his work in Ontario and Quebec.

Bethune, of course, has been the subject of numerous books, including Adrienne Clarkson’s 2009 biography in Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Lives series and as well as of the 1990 film starring Donald Sutherland. But the detail characteristic of the Stewarts’ book strengthens its appeal and ensures its primacy in comparison to other recent productions.

Bethune was clearly a renaissance man. The bonding he did with the Chinese Communist high command was a vital factor when the Trudeau government opened the doors to the Peoples Republic in the 1970s.

To this day, Chinese tourists flock to his birthplace in Gravenhurst, Ont. Several monuments in China attest to the status he enjoys as a “helpful foreigner.”

Incidentally, Winnipeg is decently treated by the Stewarts. A fundraising speech Bethune made here before his departure to foreign fields is extensively reported.

Geoff Lambert is a former political studies professor at the University of Manitoba.

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