Norman Bethune

by Adrienne Clarkson
Penguin Books
200 pages $26.00
bethune(Canscene) – Whatever future political direction The People’s Republic of China takes, one thing is certain: a Canadian surgeon will remain a hero to the Chinese people, as he has done since his death in China in 1939 at the age of forty-nine.

One of the latest releases in Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series is this biography of Norman Bethune. Its author, Adrienne Clarkson, presents the Ontario-born doctor, warts and all, but in the process destroys some of the myths about him to reveal a loner who stubbornly combined a dedication for the rights of all to medical help with an arrogant behaviour toward fellow professionals.

Bethune’s larger than life character might have been invented by a novelist. Attractive to women, a poet and a self-opinionated professional he was, but at the core of his personality was a genuine compassion for the sick and the poor. As a member of Canada’s Communist Party which he joined for idealistic reasons, one can imagine him eventually straining under the leash of doctrinaire discipline.

Adrienne Clarkson traces Bethune’s life from his birth in Gravenhurst, Ontario, son of a Presbyterian minister to his death in China from septicemia after nicking his finger on an infected wound he was dressing.

In his extraordinary career he had served as a stretcher bearer in the Canadian Army in the Great War, graduated from the University of Toronto as a Bachelor of Medicine, cured himself of tuberculosis and made discoveries in thoracic surgery. His career as a physician took him to Montreal, a city with which he is much more identified than any other part of Canada. As a teenager he had as teacher for Frontier College served with lumberjacks and miners, adapting himself to a roughneck existence without any apparent qualms

In Spain aiding the republican forces from 1936 to 1937 he developed travelling blood transfusion centres, then returned to Canada on a barnstorming ing mission to raise funds for the fight against Franco’s rebelling. In 1938, China called. Mao and his communist army had completed the epic Long March and were at war with warlord Chiang Kai Sheik’s forces as well as the Japanese invaders.

bethune-treating-patientHere, Bethune established field hospitals and toiled tirelessly as medical adviser to the Eighth Route Army often himself treating the wounded. His meeting with Mao Zedung is recorded in China’s school history books.

What makes Clarkson’s story of a life highly readable is the storytelling method she has chosen. Much of the book consists of Bethune’s letters to friends and lovers, his speeches and remembered statements. This was an extravagant man who loved luxury, the adoration of others and getting his own way but who, at the drop of a hat, could plunge himself into an arduous, huminatarian lifestyle.

Today, Bethune’s birthplace in Gravenhurst is operated as a museum and has increasingly become a shrine for Chinese visitors.

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