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Putting the Pieces Together Again
by Allan Levine

Curiously enough, Pierre Berton's long journey on the road to becoming a national icon began with little fanfare. As he recalled in a January 1962 Toronto Star column, reprinted in this witty and engrossing collection of his writings, it was during his stint in Basic Training at Vernon, B.C. in 1942 that his true talents first started to shine. A fellow trainee named Chuck was experiencing difficulty writing a letter to his girlfriend, Elsie. Berton, equipped with a small Hermes Baby portable typewriter, quickly offered Chuck his services for the low price of one dollar per letter.

He managed to work himself into poetic love prose: "Dear Elsie: The vacuum left here by your presence is almost unbearable. Companionship here is all but denied me since my army cronies are low people of undistinguished mien.. In all of this human desert there is only one man whom I am pleased to call my friend. His name is Pierre and he is a good cut above the others here.." Elsie was not impressed. "Dear Honeybun," she replied. "Thanks again for taking time out to drop me a note.. The gang in your barrack room sound really cute. But Pierre sounds like a bit of a creep."

Elsie's assessment aside, Pierre Berton's love of writing may be his most enduring legacy as a Canadian journalist, author, popular historian, and television personality. It is also what has made him such a versatile writer, willing to tackle almost any subject, no matter how controversial-anti-Semitism, religion, and pre-marital sex, to list a few. That and a lot of hard work.

The thirty or so pieces reprinted here, culled from the extensive "Berton archives", are a small fraction of his prodigious published work, which began when he took a job with Maclean's magazine in 1947. He estimates that after he jumped to the Toronto Star in 1958 he wrote about a thousand columns-a million and a quarter words. In 1954, he had already published his first bestselling book, The Royal Family. Worth Repeating is book no. 43 in an impressive list. He is perhaps best known for The National Dream and The Last Spike, his two-volume popular history of the CPR.

His brief excerpt here from The Royal Family, in which he relates the various ups and downs of King Edward VII's love life, exemplifies his nose for a good story and his ability to tell it with style, grace, and humour.

Not every article, speech or book segment in this collection stands the test of time. Still, Berton's remarkable and natural gift as a story-teller makes the bulk of this book truly worth repeating-that is, reading again.

He has never pretended to be a towering literary figure. "I am a journalist rather than an `author'," he points out in the introduction. Maybe so. Yet he has always had a wonderful eye for detail and knows a good anecdote when he finds one. Whether he is exploring cheap Canadian whisky or how Cecil B. deMille distorted and mangled the story of the Northwest Rebellion in one of his unforgettable movies, or relating tales about characters in the North named Diamond-Tooth Gertie and the Count de Carbonneau (really a barber from Montreal), Berton never fails to fascinate. Nor has he ever apologized for being a popularizer.

Here, for example, is how he begins "Van Horne Moves the Troops West", which first appeared in Historic Headlines in 1967 and cemented Berton's connection with the history of the CPR: "In the darkling midnight of Easter Monday, 1885, a scene of unparalleled misery and fortitude unrolled like a Japanese scroll in the most desolate and forlorn corner of the new Canada. A column of soldiers-a long, wriggling snake of a column it was-inched its way across the knee-deep slush of Lake Superior's frozen surface. It cannot be said they were marching. `Plunging' is a better participle. Drenched to the skin by pelting and pitiless rain, their toes, ankles and calves numbed by the encasing rubble of snow, water and ice, their bodies racked by uncontrollable coughing and wheezing, the men of the 10th Regiment, Royal Grenadiers, Toronto, stumbled forward through the shrieking storm."

This is classic Berton popular history, full of vivid narrative writing which brilliantly brings the past back to life. It is grand, heroic, well-researched, passionate, and, above all, Canadian. Despite their occasional criticisms of his work over the years, most academic historians, I suspect, would gladly trade their book sales for his. Like it or not, Berton's version of history, in all its excitement and grandeur, has influenced a generation of Canadians.

Other current "generalist" writers who come to mind are Robert Fulford, John Ralston Saul, and Rick Salutin, but, as Geoff Pevere says in his introduction to this analogy, Berton is in a category by himself.

His versatility is evident throughout this book. He writes powerfully about the use of torture in Canadian prisons in 1958 and about capital punishment, complete with a 1959 poem, "Requiem for a Fourteen-Year-Old", on the ordeal of Stephen Truscott, who was convicted of raping and murdering a young girl. In an excerpt from The Comfortable Pew, which in 1965 was a controversial book, he shows how he broke new ground by taking on the religious establishment and then follows that with a probing self-interview about the uproar it caused. In between, he muses about the power of the media, the problems of purchasing a coffin, the role of the automobile in modern society, and the architecture of Toronto's Union Station.

In a Maclean's piece he wrote in 1949, Berton examined the expanding effects of television, then just an American novelty. He echoes the warning of a New York friend who told him that "this monster will devour us all unless we resist it." But Berton, of course, tamed the "monster" into doing his bidding, recognizing at once the link between his ever-increasing book sales and his rise as a TV celebrity, first on his own show and later as a panelist on Front Page Challenge.

Of all the articles reprinted in Worth Repeating, "The Joy of Writing" from Maclean's in 1970 struck a particular chord for me. It is Berton's attempt to explain why he is driven to write-his obsession, as he calls it-and to describe the solitary, difficult, yet exhilarating process of completing a book.

"To write a book as complicated as this one," he reflected about The National Dream, then just published, "is rather like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. The pieces arrive in no particular order; you sort them out as best you can. Certain pieces elude you; some are key pieces and some peripheral. But you cannot sleep peacefully until you find them all."

Berton has clearly had many restless nights, as have we all. And, as most writers would,I think, concur, somehow it is comforting to know that Pierre Berton is a mere mortal after all. 

Allan Levine is a Winnipeg historian and writer, the author of several books including The Blood Libel, shortlisted for the 1997 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. His latest book, Fugitives of the Forest, chronicles Jewish resistance and survival in World War II, and is being published by Stoddart .


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