Summary and book reviews of The Communist's Daughter by Dennis Bock

The Communist's Daughter

by Dennis Bock

The Communist's Daughter
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2007, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2008, 304 pages

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Book Summary

The historical Norman Bethune—legendary in both his native Canada and China—was a visionary whose dedication touched millions, and as the narrator of this novel he springs to vivid life even as he approaches its end.

From the acclaimed author of The Ash Garden—“an illuminating searchlight on the terra incognita where the personal and the political intersect” (Newsday)—an even more ambitious novel that follows a doctor from the trenches of the Great War into subsequent conflicts whose horrors would soon envelop the world.

The historical Norman Bethune—legendary in both his native Canada and China—was a visionary whose dedication touched millions, and as the narrator of this novel he springs to vivid life even as he approaches its end. Rebelling in childhood against his father’s religion, he finds a calling himself, saving lives on the battlefield, only after nearly losing his own in the trenches in France. In Republican Spain he fulfills his idealism, yet before long politics destroy a romance, compromise his achievement, and drive him to seek refuge and purpose in the vast expanse of China. Here, in the service of the man eventually known as Mao Zedong, Bethune contends with Nationalist and Japanese enemies and begins this account of failed loves, cherished beliefs, discoveries, and reversals for the only person who still makes a future seem possible: the daughter he has never seen.
 
Storytelling at its best—passionate, wrenching, compelling—about a complex, contradictory man caught in the relentless sweep of history.

Excerpt
The Communist's Daughter

It is my hope that your understanding will win out against any mistrust or anger you may harbour against me when you finally read this. It is so easy to feel anger, and Lord knows I deserve a good dose of it. But I am trying, and you will see I have been trying for quite some time. I also hope that you will read this many years from now, when you are grown, at a time when this story will be long past. With an adult’s eyes it is more likely that you will see this letter for what it is, and know the regret and tenderness I feel as I compose this history for you. Of course, I know I have no control over any of this, yet still I hope. The dead must relinquish so much.

Heaven forbid these pages return to you without me, but allowing for such a possibility I give you my word absolutely that I will recount my life as faithfully as I recall it, nothing added, nothing lost.

Will I be dead? That is certainly the way things seem to go around here, but it ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Dennis Bock imagines the life of the historical Norman Bethune, keeping the essence of history intact but playing fast and lose with some of the peripheral details, which some readers might consider rather central - such as the fact that the entire novel is addressed to Bethune's daughter who he never met (but historically never had). Having said that, there is no firm evidence that somewhere in the mess of the Spanish Civil War Bethune did not meet a woman and did not have a child, and the novelist must be allowed some leeway to carry out his craft - even though this particular device seems to cause Bock to come unstuck with some critics who feel that in failing to return to his motherless daughter Bethune is all too human but not sufficiently humane. It seems a pity that readers might form such an opinion of Bock's fictional Bethune (and thus, to a greater or lesser extent, of the real Bethune) because of a fictional device - especially as, by the end of the novel, Bock gives sufficient reason to explain why Bethune would be apart from his daughter at this time.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (708 words).

Media Reviews

New York Times - Nisid Hajari

Bock’s rendition of Bethune’s prose, while obviously striving for historical accuracy, can be stiff and overcomplicated, and Bethune’s cynicism seems out of keeping with his idealism. (The Communist students who have flocked to Mao’s hideout in Yenan, he writes, “live and study, wholly devoted to the improvement of self and society.”) But as with the scientist in “The Ash Garden,” pained by his historical role but not regretful, Bethune’s contradictions are familiar ones. Despite the grand historical backdrop of the novel, he’s only human, after all. We can respect the good he does on the battlefield all the more, knowing he himself is so flawed.

The Boston Globe - Anna Mundow

Those motivations remain a mystery for much of the novel, and this is to the author's credit. Rather than sanctifying Bethune for his politics (he fights against fascism in Spain and personally advises Mao in China) or ridiculing him for his egotism, Bock exposes him incrementally, revealing only as much at a time as the flawed man himself might reveal in this imagined epistle to the daughter he will never meet.

The Pittsburg Tribune-Review - David Walton

Bock's style, like Hemingway's, has journalistic precision and conciseness, but lacks Hemingway's portentousness (and pretentiousness) in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Strangely, or maybe not that strangely, Bock evokes the bravery and idealism of that time with a sharpness and perspective lacking in many novels written then.

Kirkus Reviews

A slow, sure novel that burns away the glamor of war.

Publisher's Weekly

The novel's most affecting moments stem from Bock's portrayal of the troubled soul of a war-weary idealist whose dreams of a better world were battered by ugly reality.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Starred Review. [A] beautifully measured yet deeply felt portrayal of a battlefield surgeon....as Bock's hero unflinchingly parses our insistence on war and our caring more about ideas than life, he also, even amid horror, celebrates "the rapturous wonder of being alive."

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Beyond the Book

Henry Norman Bethune (Mar 3, 1890 - Nov 12, 1939), known as Norman, was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario. He interrupted his studies at the University of Toronto to set up classes for immigrants in a bush lumber camp in northern Ontario and then, at the outbreak of World War I, enlisted in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. While serving as as stretcher bearer in France, he was wounded at Ypres and returned home to finish up his medical studies, receiving his M.D. in 1916. In 1917 he re-enlisted in the Royal Navy.
...

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