CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 6 . . . . October 7, 2011
Norman Bethune, the subject of this very fine biography, was a most unusual and controversial individual. Phoenix tells the story of his life from his birth in Gravenhurst, ON, in 1890, to his death in China in 1939. The impression given of Bethune is of a difficult man frequently intolerant of strangers as well as people he knew and someone impatient of the customs and protocol of the societies in which he lived. He believed that only his views were the right ones. While praising his virtues. which included his medical skills and boundless energy, Phoenix also points out his many faults. Bethune was not what one would consider a nice man. He was arrogant, often very rude even to those he cared for and inconsiderate of the feelings of others. An example of Bethune's intolerance concerns a Canadian nurse, Jean Ewen, who was assisting him in China. When she suggested that they return to a town where they had been previously to avoid capture by the Japanese, Bethune turned on her and shouted, "Of all the damned inefficiency I have ever seen! Where the hell are your brains?" Richard Brown, a Canadian doctor who spent time with Bethune in China, described him as follows: "The Angel Gabriel couldn't get along with Norman Bethune. He's a horrible man."
The title chosen for this life of Bethune refers to an Arabian bird of legend which sets itself on fire but then rises miraculously unharmed from the ashes. It also refers to an individual of extraordinary beauty. Bethune did almost destroy himself many times but somehow managed to recover and function in what, for him, was a normal fashion, but it is a stretch of the imagination to think of him as beautiful, though he did have some sterling qualities.
As a young man, Bethune became a communist and often had to lie about his political beliefs. His idealism took him to Spain during the Spanish Civil War where he tried to set up a portable blood transfusion service to help the communists in their struggle with General Franco. His experiences there were both exciting and terrifying. Unsuccessful in his goals, he returned to North America to preach about the evils of fascism. Still restless, he then left for China where he provided medical services to the communist soldiers of Mao Tse Tung in their monumental conflict with the Japanese. He died as a result of an untreated infection.
Many readers may have heard about Bethune's experiences in China. What is probably less known about his life was his fascination with women. He was a womanizer whose affairs became quite public. If he was attracted to a woman, he would go to great lengths to seduce her, and some women found him most attractive and were quite willing to be seduced. He married the same woman twice but had a stormy relationship with her. This aspect of his life lessens one's enthusiasm for his unflinching idealism and support for the communists in Spain and China in their struggles against fascism.
Phoenix is very well researched. It has an index, an extensive bibliography and very thorough notes. It has three maps, one of Spain and two of China. The Spanish map shows the area of the country controlled by the Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. The first map of China shows the route Bethune took in 1938 from Hankou to Wutai upon his arrival in the country. The second shows the Jin Cha Ji Border Region of China where his work with the Communist 8th Route Army took place during its struggle with the Japanese. These maps are of little value because they will be meaningless to most readers. In addition, there are many black and white photographs placed in groups at four different locations.
Phoenix is Roderick Stewart's fourth book on Bethune. Norman Bethune was written for high school students while Bethune and The Mind of Norman Bethune are meant for adults. Learning as much as possible about this strange man has almost become an obsession for Stewart. Few writers are as well qualified to discuss the man and the myths about him. In Phoenix, Roderick Stewart was ably assisted by Sharon Stewart, herself an accomplished author of children's books.
Thomas F. Chambers, a retired college professor, lives in North Bay, ON.
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