The Communist's Daughter
Trevor S. Raymond is a teacher and librarian with the Peel Board of Education and editor of Canadian Holmes.
Norman Bethune, the leftist Canadian doctor who died in 1939 while
helping Mao’s army in its war against Japan, is revered in China and
has been remembered here in television dramas, a play, a statue, a
museum, postage stamps, and biographies for adults and young readers.
Bethune was also the subject of an epic feature movie and the model for
the protagonists in at least two novels. Now Bock, the award-winning
author of The Ash Garden (2001), has written an inventive new take on
the man. Bock skilfully blends what is known about our most famous
doctor with imagined incident and presents it all in Bethune’s voice.
Bethune tells his own story in letters written to an unnamed daughter
whom, in the novel, he has never seen, and who in reality never existed.
His memories range from those of his childhood in Gravenhurst, Ontario,
through his stormy marriages (two, to the same woman) and experiences in
three wars. His life is not revealed chronologically, for memory does
not work that way.
China looms largest in the book. Between recollections of his past,
Bethune writes of his unimaginably difficult months there and of the
horrific and savage war that ultimately consumed him and enshrined him
in legend. Of particular interest is Bock’s speculative portrait of
the woman who is the supposed mother of “the communist’s
daughter.” Bethune had a romantic liaison with a Swedish journalist
during the Spanish Civil War, but history knows little of her background
and nothing of her eventual fate. Neither is the record clear on how
their relationship ended or even why Bethune suddenly left her and Spain
and returned to Canada. It is the novelist’s prerogative to fill in
blanks with dramatic conjecture, and Bock does a fine job of it. But as
enjoyable as this book is, its greatest pleasure will be for those who
know something of Bethune’s story. Others might find it more
satisfying if they read a biography of this enigmatic Canadian first.