After the Smoke Cleared

by Jack Kuper,
298 pages,
ISBN: 0773728325

Seeing Canada Whole:
A Memoir

858 pages,
ISBN: 1550410695

Post Your Opinion
Lives to Remember
by Laura Paquet

IT WOULD BE HARD TO THINK of two memoirs more dissimilar than Seeing Canada Whole, the detailed and dispassionate reminiscences of the retired politician and bureaucrat J. W. Pickersgill, and After the Smoke Cleared, the emotionally loaded reflections of the Holocaust survivor and Toronto filmmaker Jack Kuper.

Pickersgill's book traces his long and eventful life from his childhood on a Manitoba homestead and the pursuit of graduate studies in England, through his careers as a university professor, bureaucrat, MP, and cabinet minister. The early sections of the book are by far the most intriguing, perhaps because they cover the years Pickersgill was most keen to record. In the conclusion to the book he notes:

I had already published books about my relations with two prime ministers, St. Laurent and Pearson. What I felt was needed was to write about my early life and my relations with Mackenzie King ... the publisher persuaded me to add the St. Laurent and Pearson periods, and I then decided to include my twenty years of retirement.

Seeing Canada Whole keeps the reader firmly at arm's length; Pickersgill devotes more space to a minor debate over seating priorities in the 1964 House of Commons than to the tragic death of his first wife at the age of 25, just 18 months after they married. Those looking for emotional connection won't find it here. At times, the book reads more like an old volume of Hansard than a personal memoir.

The author's tendency to give each issue equal weight, his reluctance to provide personal perspective on the events he recalIs, and his relentlessly chronological presentation make the book rather flat. Nothing seems important or memorable -- which is unfortunate, given that Pickersgill played a part in many major events, including the conscription crisis of the Second World War and the debate over the Canadian flag. Jack Kuper's memoirs couldn't be more of a contrast to Pickersgill's in tone, style, and content. He told the story of his formative years as a young Polish Jew hiding from the Nazis in his popular book Child of the Holocaust (1967). After the Smoke Cleared picks up where the first book left off, with Kuper making his way from a Polish orphanage to Toronto. After forging a career as a graphic artist, scriptwriter, advertising executive, and filmmaker, Kuper is reunited with his father in 1967. The balance of the book deals with their subsequent rocky relationship.

The author finds it especially hard to forgive his father for leaving the family alone in wartime Poland. Kuper's mother and brother perished in concentration camps. Meanwhile, his father was starting families with two different women in the Soviet Union.

"When you left in '39, you kissed us goodbye as if you were going to the comer store to pick up kaiser buns for breakfast. You never looked back," Kuper says to his father years later. "How were you able to tear yourself away so easily?" he asks in agony.

Unlike Pickersgill, who describes almost everyone except Mackenzie King and Pierre Trudeau in glowing terms, Kuper paints a warts-and-alI picture of his family and friends, as well as himself. An uncle steals his savings from a kitchen drawer; the Toronto family that sheltered him during his teenage years neglects to invite him to their daughter's wedding. One can tell it all still rankles.

The style of After the Smoke Cleared is much more freewheeling than Pickersgill's Seeing Canada Whole; in fact, in the beginning, when the 13-year-old Kuper is being shuttled around among various orphanages and relatives, his writing reflects the confusion he felt at that time. People, buildings, towns, and events tumble through the pages like pieces of a Chagall painting, without much relationship to each other or to a coherent whole. For some readers -- especially those who have not read his first memoir -- it may all be a bit overwhelming. Although the book moves into clearer focus later on, Kuper retains the somewhat disorienting habit of moving backward and forward in time without alerting the reader through the use of breaks, italics, or other typographical devices.

Both Kuper and Pickersgill make some reference to their financial affairs in their books, and it's fascinating to compare their differing attitudes towards money. In 1967, Pickersgill writes that his salary is "about equivalent to $40,000 a year," including the tax-free allowance that members of Parliament enjoy. He candidly admits that he and his family have been able to save little from that amount. Kuper, in the late '60s, is made creative director of a Toronto advertising firm. He and his wife, also parents of four children, gleefully celebrate his new salary: $30,000. Kuper, unlike Pickersgill, then reflects on this wealth and what it means to him. "I knew that being the highest-paid creative director in the country was only an aspirin and would not cure what ailed me," he writes.

What ails him -- the leitmotif of the book -- is the past. He is haunted by his wartime memories, and is unable to reconcile his new life in Canada with his ill-mannered, ungrateful, but strangely compelling father and the background his father represents.

Kuper tries to cure "what ails him" by moving to Israel, but discovers that Canada, not Israel, is the country where he feels most at home. He also funnels thousands of dollars to a burgeoning collection of stepmothers, half-siblings, and other assorted relatives, only to become angry and frustrated when they come back asking for more.

In the end, comparing these two memoirs is like comparing the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a relative's old diary discovered in an attic. Pickersgill's book functions as a reference document; historians will find a wealth of information on past cabinet shuffles and parliamentary debates. Surprising harbingers of current Canadian issues -- Quebec separatism, multiculturalism, reform of social programs -- echo through the pages. Kuper's memoir is more personal and intimate. He does not claim to have made history; his book offers a detailed look at one life rather than a detailed look at one country.

Pickersgill has written the "big story"-- Canada's history -- large, giving comparatively little attention to his feelings about it, while Kuper focuses on his feelings and experience, leaving the reader to relate them to the "big story"--in this case, the Holocaust.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us