Dennis Bock imagines the life of the
historical Norman Bethune, keeping the essence of
history intact but playing fast and lose with the details.
Details that some might
consider rather central - such as the fact that the
entire novel is addressed to Bethune's daughter who
he never met - but, historically speaking, never had.
In his few spare minutes from the Chinese battlefield hospitals, Bethune writes to his daughter about his childhood, his failed marriage, his time in Franco's Spain and the siege of Madrid, and the futility of war; vividly describing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the terrible sufferings of the Chinese peasants stuck between Mao's revolutionary army, the Nationalist army and the Japanese.
In addition to providing an "eye-witness" record of the carnage of war, Bethune shows himself to be a selfless idealist (albeit complex and contradictory) who set out to do good, but was beaten down by the reality of a very ugly world. Bock puts Bethune's strong left-leaning political views into the context of the day and shows them to be not only honorable but rational when faced by both the wave of fascism sweeping central Europe and the Great Depression that many, including Bethune, saw as the failed experiment of capitalism.
A novelist must be allowed some leeway to carry out his craft, and there is no firm evidence that somewhere in the mess of the Spanish Civil War Bethune didn't meet a woman and didn't have a child. But it seems a pity that Bock built the story around this particular fictional device because it has caused some critics to conclude that, in failing to return to his motherless daughter, Bethune is all too human but not sufficiently humane. Thus, in the eyes of many readers, the real Bethune will be tarred by the same brush as his fictional counterpart.
The Communist's Daughter is a powerful novel that grows on the reader. My eventual enjoyment and appreciation of the book would have come earlier if I had known more about the real-life Bethune, in order to put the events of the novel into better context. So that you do not find yourself in a similar situation, there's a brief biography of Bethune in the sidebar.
Dennis Bock was born on the north shore of
Lake Ontario, in the small town of Belleville.
His family moved to Oakville, just
west of Toronto, when he was six. He entered the
University of Western Ontario after high school, and
took one year off during that time to live in Spain.
In 1989, he returned to Madrid for 5 years after
graduating with an Honors BA in English and
Philosophy. In Madrid he began writing his
collection of connected stories, Olympia, and
worked on it while in residence at Yaddo, the Banff
Centre and the Fundacion Valparadiso, Spain.
It was published in 1998 and won several prizes in
the UK and Canada.
His first novel, The Ash Garden, was a #1 national bestseller. His second novel, The Communist's Daughter was published in hardcover 2006 in Canada, and 2007 in the USA. He lives with his family in Guelph, Ontario.
"Charity should be abolished; and be replaced by justice." - Norman Bethune.
"We go to the people!... Look out the windows - a whole street of houses. That's where the doctor must go. Into every house, into every city, into every village. From door to door. We take medicine right down to the last individual..." - Norman Bethune, 1935.
This review was originally published in March 2007, and has been updated for the March 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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