Road trips require stories. This absorbing tale about Norman Bethune by Dennis Bock kept me occupied from Edmonton to Kamloops.
As his imagined Bethune writes to a daughter he's never met, Bock convincingly portrays the conflicting emotions of guilt and pride, sadness and joy, self-sacrifice and self-justification. As the doctor reflects on the people in his life, he acknowledges, "I cut my teeth on their sores, injuries, illness, and deaths," confiding that, "This life you hold before you is built upon the broken lives of thousands...in dark moments I see no more than an assemblage of their parts."
For this, he does not condemn himself, although "there is a sadness there. Any truthful man of medicine or science will tell you the same...how indebted we are to misfortune, upheaval and disaster...in the pursuit of science." It is "through tragedy and misfortune" that scientific facts are revealed to us. "Mastery and manipulation" are the goals of the scientist, and human suffering is "but carrion for the vultures of progress such as myself."
In real life, Bethune was well-traveled. He lectured internationally, lived in several countries, and spent his early married life running a medical practice for the rich in Detroit. In America, the narrator comments, "you can never rest, never appreciate, only aspire. It's like a war." Initially determined to become rich himself, he is instead drawn to "the underclass who have come for the American dream but will never have it." He soon finds himself treating the poor, whose only means of survival is "luck, guile, theft, or a combination of the three." The real Bethune visited the Soviet Union, and inspired by the idea of medicine practiced not for profit, became an early proponent of socialized medicine in Canada.
The conditions during the Spanish Civil War are brought vividly alive through telling details. On arriving in Madrid, Bethune soon concludes that to avoid suspicion and unpleasant encounters, he must shave his moustache and exchange his good quality clothing for the partisan's more humble garb. In the street, he observes a statue of Alfonso "in his suit of sandbags," and in a bar, he notices a republican who "smoked Ideales, the labourers' brand." Revealing a certain cynicism that lies behind his humanitarian drive, Bethune imagines the questioner of a suspected spy as he "waits with his hand on his gun for the preferred response."
Bethune is much more than a doctor. An amateur artist, he paints a portrait of a young girl to pass the time on the long ocean crossing from Vancouver to Hong Kong. He invents medical devices and systems, and writes a stream of articles for international newspapers and medical journals. He also produces a documentary film and tours widely to raise money for his medical cause. A man with poetic side, he describes the total darkness of northern China after the Japanese fighter planes have passed over: "the night in her mercy erases all traces of man."
In my years as an ESL instructor, I was told repeatedly by Chinese students how Bethune is revered in China, where he devoted his medical inventiveness and expertise to saving the lives of wounded soldiers during the Japanese occupation early in WWII. He met Mao Tse Tung in person, and they conversed about their Internationalist and Communist ideals through a long night.
What drew me to the title was a recent reminder of Bock's protagonist. A musical tour of China with fellow choristers in the spring took us through Shijiazhuang, where Norman Bethune is buried in the Martyrs' Memorial park. After the doctor's premature death from an infected cut on his finger, Mao wrote an essay in memory of Bethune. This was widely read in Chinese schools, and is still well-known.
Other memorials to Bethune are located in his birthplace of Gravenhurst, Ontario, and in Montreal, where he worked as a researcher at the Royal Victoria Hospital and is remembered at the McCord Museum. This year MDCM Candidate Christian Dabrowski presented a thesis on Bethune at McGill University. During his lifetime, Bethune's open communism was disapproved and his achievements downplayed in his homeland. In 2014, his alma mater celebrated his achievements and unveiled a statue in his honour.
Bethune has been a figure of admiration and controversy, widely discussed and written about. Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson gives an interview about him, and Donald Sutherland portrayed him in one of the many films make about this fascinating man.
Dennis Bock's work, well researched and faithful to real history, takes us back to a time long gone, channeling a voice that is completely believable as that of the real Norman Bethune. It is a tragic voice, one that looks back over a lonely life with the courageous wish to face flaws and failures. This only makes the narrator more compelling. A sample can be read here.