Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Reader's Diary #327- Pierre Berton: The National Dream (FINISHED!)

A few years ago I read Pierre Berton's The Arctic Grail and was thoroughly impressed. It was amazing how what was essentially a history book read like a novel. The arctic explorers were every bit as compelling as any fictional characters I had come across in other books. At the beginning of The National Dream Berton again presents us with a "cast of characters". Let the drama unfold...

Oh. Political drama.

I don't have an aversion to politics per se. I'm actually finding all the Obama/Clinton stuff in the States quite interesting right now. But reading 400+ pages of political history was more than I really needed.

And more than I expected. I understand that no discussion on the Canadian Pacific Railway could exist without some background into the politics and bureaucracy involved. Afterall, the whole existence of the country as we know it depended on it. British Columbia only agreed to join if it was connected to Manitoba, Ontario and the rest of Canada by a railway. Plus all the land in between was under serious threat of being usurped by those scary people south of the border.

I guess a lot of the problem was expectations. I had wanted more about the building of the railroad. I've heard a little about the Chinese workers and their horrible conditions working on the railroad, but Berton doesn't explore that angle at all...at least in this book. I only realized after the fact that those issues are discussed in the sequel The Last Spike. For now all I got were pre-construction debates, bickering between the liberals and the conservatives, scandals, and pretty much the same crap that's still going on today. Perhaps the ability to look back and see how similar things were back then was interesting, but just for a while. Big business, by the way, is not a new phenomenom.

Unfortunately it wasn't only the topic that soured me on the book. Surprisingly, I even felt that Berton's writing was annoying. Most problematic was his constant references to old portraits. It was astounding how much he seemed to think one could surmise from a mere picture. Refering to a photo of Sir Hugh Allan, for example, Berton writes that he "looks like the prototype of the nineteenth-century robber baron. He is seen taking a pace forward as if to lunge upon the hapless photographer..." It was enough to write about the activities of these individuals (the drinking of Sir John A. MacDonald, the wild excursion of Donald Smith from Labrador to Montreal, etc) to get a sense of who these people were. The constant portrait personality profiling seemed cheap and sensational. I don't remember having that issue with The Arctic Grail. Perhaps my memory is faulty, perhaps an editor stepped in, or perhaps Berton finally realized that pictures aren't always worth a thousand words.

This was my 8th book for the Canadian Reading Challenge and, though it had nothing to do with the Yukon, was my choice for that territory since Berton is probably their most well-known and prolific authors. And if you're Canadian I know you've all seen this a million times. If not, it caused quite a stir at the end of Berton's relatively controversy-free life...



What have your literary icons been up to?

The Soundtrack:
1. At The Hundredth Meridian by the Tragically Hip
2. The Locomotion by Grand Funk Railroad
3. Go West by The Cult
4. The Monorail Song by The Simpsons
5. Money Talks by Rubella Ballet

5 comments:

Remi said...

It never really gets old, does it? I liked when he had Margaret Atwood dress up in goalie gear and show how to stop a puck.

One more reason why CanLit is cool.

Chris said...

I never saw that one. That was a riot!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Oh yes, and I do like the Margaret Atwood bit as well!

One of my Canlit icons, Douglas Coupland, is having his books turned into tv shows. I haven't seen JPod yet though, have you?

Melanie said...

I'd never seen this one - where have I been? Hilarious, thanks for sharing, John.

Brown Paper said...

Thankyouthankyouthankyou for posting that clip.