________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 7 . . . . November 26, 2004


Norman Bethune. (The Canadians). 2d. ed.

Roderick Stewart.
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002.
64 pp., pbk., $8.95.
ISBN 1-55041-487-9.

Subject Headings:
Bethune, Norman, 1890-1939.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Tom Chambers.

*** /4


Bethune loved to criticize mainstream society. He complained that many people, especially the rich, were boring. They led dull, mechanical and unproductive lives. They did nothing but follow the rules dictated by society. In contrast, he preferred to reveal his feelings openly and to act freely. He was entirely aware of, and deeply amused by the fact that his unconventional behaviour usually shocked people.

Once when he was taking a shower in his apartment, he heard the doorbell ring. When the bell continued to ring insistently, Bethune stepped out of the shower, walked to the door, and opened it. The sight of the unclothed, dripping wet Bethune so unnerved the callers that they fled. At times he behaved almost childishly in offending people he disliked. Once when he was with a friend, he excused himself, saying, "I just saw _____come in. I can't stand him. I'll be back as soon as I can irritate him."

Though a few people secretly admired him for his courage in speaking his mind and criticizing people to their faces, his openness did not make him popular. His bold manner and unpredictable behaviour reduced his circle of friends. He was isolating himself from the society he criticized.


Norman Bethune is the biography of the Canadian doctor who practiced medicine in Spain during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and also in China during that country's war with Japan in 1938-39. It covers his life from his birth in1890 until his death in China in 1939. It was originally published in 1974 as part of a series on interesting Canadians, “The Canadians.”

     Author Roderick Stewart has written two other books on Bethune. While Norman Bethune is recommended for readers aged 10-11, it will be more easily understood by those a year or two older. Stewart's style is quite sophisticated. There are many facts in his book about Bethune's life. These are given very quickly. The story of his early life, for example, from the year of his birth until the end of his second year in med school is told in less than four pages. A little more flesh on the facts would have been welcome and would have made the book more appealing. Apart from that, Norman Bethune is well written, generally well researched and interesting. It could be used for both classroom and recreational purposes. Young readers will be amazed at the breadth of Bethune's talents and will likely want to learn more about him.

     For older readers, there may be some confusion with Stewart's statement about a typical Bethune discussion: "it would usually end with fierce criticism of capitalism, the political and economic system that most of Bethune's friends believed was the cause of the Depression." Capitalism is an economic system while democracy is the political system most often associated with it. They need not, however, coexist together. The Chinese, for example, have moved towards a capitalist economy, allowing some free enterprise, while retaining a political system that is anything but democratic. It was the economic system he witnessed that Bethune found distasteful. In Stewart's book, he had little interest in politics in Canada.

     One questionable "fact" in Norman Bethune concerns the Chinese communist leader, Mao Zedong. Stewart writes that he was the "son of a Hunanese peasant." This is the official Chinese version of the "Great Helmsman's" background because it makes his achievements seem more remarkable. Less politically correct accounts, in unbiased sources, state that Mao was from a middle class or prosperous farming family. Even the Chinese authorities are forced to admit this when visitors tour the family home, one that is grander than that of the average peasant.

     Norman Bethune is illustrated throughout with black and white photographs. They are meant to be functional, but most are very small and many of the images so tiny it is difficult to make out the details. It has two maps, one of Spain and one of China. While maps are good teaching tools, these have limited value. On the small map of Spain, the names of most cities are illegible while the larger map of China is so dark that many of the place names included are also very hard to read. A useful timeline of Bethune's life is included as well as an index and list of references for further reading.


Thomas F. Chambers, a retired college teacher, lives in North Bay, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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