CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 3. . . . October 4, 2002
In Righting Wrongs: The Story of Norman Bethune, geologist, photojournalist, and author John Wilson draws upon his own varied background to tell the life story of Bethune, a multifaceted man best known for his medical innovation. In this biography, Bethune emerges as a tragic hero: an ordinary human being possessing neither exceptional virtue nor vice, who suffers misfortune. In this case, the great misfortune is that, although Bethune advanced the treatment of tuberculosis, demonstrated the benefits of blood transfusion, and championed a Canadian medicare system, and although he was highly respected abroad - particularly in China - his contributions remained virtually unacknowledged in his home country, largely in response to his communist affiliations. Beginning with the doctor's humble birth in Gravenhurst, Ontario in 1890, and ending with his death by blood poisoning in 1939, Wilson portrays Bethune with fairness and dignity. One can't help but admire the young Bethune's inquisitiveness and determination, note the physician's genuine compassion towards the poor and wounded, and respect the artist's talent and sponsorship of the Montreal Children's Creative Art Centre. Not that Bethune was without his shortcomings: Wilson does not hide the headstrong, irascible perfectionism that characterized the man. Yet the author manages to balance Bethune's positive traits against the negative, and so conveys his subject's three-dimensionality, his humanity.
Appropriately enough for a biography whose subject resists easy pigeonholing, the book's design is unconventional, a fusion of coffee-table book and Web site elements. The coffee-table book influence is evident in the book's dimensions and its emphasis on visual appeal. Measuring 22 cm x 25 cm, it makes for conspicuous and unwieldy reading on a public transit or school bus. Attracting further attention are the illustrations by Liz Milkau, the reproductions of photographs housed by the National Archives of Canada and private sources, the reproductions of Bethune's artworks, and the reproductions even of postage stamps commemorating Bethune. Contained within a durable hard cover, the weighty paper, two-color processing, and semi-gloss sheen of the pages are pleasing to the eye and to the touch.
Simultaneously, Wilson implements a structure reminiscent of Web pages. In place of traditional chapters, Righting Wrongs favors one-page summaries, generally headed by two or three words. The majority of the pages are divided into two columns: one column is composed of black text that profiles Bethune on a personal level; the other column, in teal green type (and in a smaller font size than the black type), acts as sidebar text; it provides a socio-historical context to Bethune's unfolding life story. The two texts complement each other, such as when the main text mentions Bethune's participation in the Frontier College program, and the sidebar texts details the College's origins. Similarly, where the main text describes the boy Norman in Toronto, the sidebar text reveals how Toronto received the nickname "Hog Town." Together with the generous amount of pictures, this Web-like layout of words allows readers, especially those with short attention spans, to digest information in manageable bites.
Without a doubt, Righting Wrongs: The Story of Norman Bethune is worth its $18.95 price tag. The biography's relevance for Canadians, its extensive use of photos from Canada's National Archives, its timeline of Bethune's life, and its list of pertinent Web sites all contribute to its value. While young people may grapple with the occasional word beyond their ken, such as "tolerated," "incentive" (p. 7), "escapade" (p. 11), "constructive" (p. 33), and "populace" (p. 53), the book's language is intelligent yet accessible, and couched in short, simple sentences. One hopes there will be many more such offerings from Napoleon Publishing which has released two other books in the "Stories of Canada" series - Believing in Books: The Story of Lillian Smith and Changing Pattern: The Story of Emily Stowe (www.transmedia95.com). Even in a world becoming increasingly globalized, young Canadians still need to cultivate an awareness of the achievements of their fellow citizens.
The older Ottawa's Julie Chychota gets, the more the biography genre intrigues her.
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