William Lyon Mackenzie King "loved his mother like anything," rhymed poet Dennis Lee.

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William Lyon Mackenzie King is profiled in a new biography.

William Lyon Mackenzie King is profiled in a new biography.

William Lyon Mackenzie King "loved his mother like anything," rhymed poet Dennis Lee.

"Not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary," King kept repeating during the crisis over drafting Canadians into the army during the Second World War.

Winnipeg author Allan Levine gave himself the mission of turning this dull but eccentric Canadian into a subject worthy of contemporary discussion.

He succeeds, bringing to life the inner thoughts of his subject as best anyone can.

King's diaries are the key source. Their unexpected release after King's death provided a treasure trove for Canadian scholars. Levine wants to make them accessible to a new generation of Canadians.

Levine, a history teacher at St. John's Ravenscourt in Winnipeg, is one of those rare writers equally adept at fiction and non-fiction, helpful in the King case where the two realms seem to blend.

His historical mysteries include Sins of the Suffragette; his seven previous non-fiction books include Scrum Wars: The Prime Ministers and the Media.

King was no dummy.

He got his PhD from Harvard, wrote a textbook on labour relations, established the Labour Department, was its first deputy minister, became an MP and the first labour minister. He became prime minister in 1921 and retired in 1948, with only two breaks in his hold on power.

The "hand of destiny" in the subtitle is a reference to King's belief, uttered over and over in his diaries, that all the good things that happened to him were the work of God and his dead relatives, acting in concert. The bad things were either all for the best and part of God's plan or the work of an evil spirit.

Levine allows his own skepticism of spiritualism to shine through, describing King's beliefs as "bizarre... unconventional... the whole crazy package."

But he sets aside his own beliefs to put King's in perspective. His was an age in which prominent doctors, lawyers, university presidents and other community leaders -- including Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- took part in seances and table-rappings.

Their quest was to reconcile the eternal question of what happens after death with then-modern science through the use of mediums who could act as communications links between the two worlds, much as telegraphs, telephones and radios were opening up communication in the material world.

King's fascination with psychics and his own dreams fills hundreds of pages of his diaries and dozens of pages of Levine's book.

The test of King's mettle as a leader, and of Levine as his biographer, are the events leading up to and including the Second World War, especially the conscription crisis.

King met Hitler and was completely taken in by him.

Canada turned back Jewish refugees from Hitler's Europe on the ship the St. Louis and later took in only 5,000. Other countries took hundreds of times more.

While never excusing him, Levine locates King as a relative moderate compared to the open anti-Semitism and other racism of the day.

Levine handles the conscription crisis as adroitly as King did.

Division between Quebec and English Canada over conscription had almost split the country during the First World War. King wanted to avoid a recurrence at all costs.

His deliberate ambiguity and confusion ensured that the country would survive to another day.

Given the beliefs and behaviour that seem so strange to modern audiences, Levine must explain how King could serve as prime minister for more than 20 years, still a record.

Levine gives King credit for "craft and cunning," which he disguised with the same ambiguous verbiage he used on conscription.

His overriding concern for the place of Quebec in Confederation -- and his frequent compromises to keep it there -- were the key to King's political longevity, Levine says.

King himself, as Levine would be the first to concede, would give all the credit to God, his mother and his beloved terrier, Pat.

 

Donald Benham teaches politics and the mass media at the University of Winnipeg.

Book review

King: William Lyon Mackenzie

A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny

  • By Allan Levine
  • Douglas & McIntyre, 406 pages, $37

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