Pierre Berton: a Biography

Reviewed: January 7, 2009
By: A.B. McKillop
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
791 pages, $37.99

There were at least two sides to Pierre Berton. There was Berton the family man, the private fellow who was introspective and a bit shy. Then there was the larger than life PIERRE BERTON [keep the caps, please] , the showman with the bushy sideburns, the comb-over and the bow ties. Actually that Pierre Berton was further fractured into variations in nearly every mass medium that it was possible for the man to master in his time.

During his career he wrote for several newspapers as both reporter and columnist, was a daily feature on a Toronto radio station, spent decades on television’s Front Page Challenge, hosted an interview talk show that remains head and shoulders above most of what passes for that genre now, and was involved in several other television ventures.

Oh, I haven’t mentioned the books, have I? He wrote either 50 or over 70 of those, depending on whether or not you count the individual volumes of his Adventures in Canadian History series for younger readers.

Perhaps more importantly, he looked at the dry, esoteric way that our history was being told by the professional academics, and decided it was time to bring back narrative. This is a move that met with much resistance from the historical elitists in the country, but which he bucked for decades until he finally wore them down.

Several of the popular historians who have spent time at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat here in Dawson have been quick to tell me that it was reading Berton’s histories that convinced them to try their hand at that important task. For young Brian McKillop, fresh out of grade 9 in the summer of 1961, the fact that he took a book called Klondike along with him on a family fishing trip turned out to be an important choice.

McKillop would go on to specialize in intellectual and cultural history. with particular interests in religion, higher education, elite and popular culture, and historiography. His book, The Spinster and the Prophet, was both a history and a mystery, and won him the Arthur Ellis Award for Best "True Crime" Book from the Crime Writers of Canada in 2001.

McKillop occupied Berton House during the summer of 2004, working on the early chapters of his unauthorized biography, sifting through the material that would make up the first 71 pages of this very Bertonesque volume.

It’s an enormous book after all, 677 pages of story with another 114 pages of footnotes, comments on sources, and indexing. Those pages at the back fooled me; I got to the end of the book more quickly that I had expected, and as with all really good books I was both fulfilled and disappointed to realize the story was over.

McKillop didn’t know that the story was going to be over in the summer of 2004. Berton went downhill quickly that fall. He was far sicker than his appearance as an octogenarian toker on the Rick Mercer Show made him appear. Escorted to the 2004 Berton House Gala in a wheelchair, he nevertheless made everyone forget he was near the end of the trail when he mesmerized the crowd with his recitation of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”.

McKillop was present for that, and he captured the metamorphosis from Berton to BERTON just as I had noted it when he was last in Dawson in 1998.

“The transformation was immediate. The voice was clear, the body erect. Berton delivered the 58 lines (of the poem) with the same gusto he had all his life. The voice gained strength and remained strong to the end.”

McKillop finds two themes in Berton’s life and work which seem to me to assist in understanding the man. To get to them he gives us a thorough examination of Berton’s family roots and the forces which shaped him. He also works his way through each of Berton’s books and many of his other writings, building a convincing argument along the way, marrying the two conflicting streams of history writing by telling us the story and seeking its meaning at the same time.

While Berton was close to his mother, close enough to take her manuscript for I Married the Klondike and ghost write it so that it worked and has become a Canadian classic, McKillop finds much of Berton’s drive to succeed coming from his troubled relationship with his father. Frank Berton was a man of many interests and wide learning who nevertheless failed to accomplish a great deal during his lifetime and was worn down by circumstances.

Father and son loved each other, but had trouble relating to each other, and it seems that Berton was determined never to have to scrape by as his parents did during the Depression years.

The other formative influence was Dawson City, which Berton himself noted made an appearance of some sort in nearly half of his books. While there was a point in his life where the young Berton strained to get away from here, the young man and the adult returned to the place again and again. It was a touchstone for him, the yardstick against which other times and places were measured. When it came time to write his last adult book, his fiftieth, it was to Dawson and the North that he returned. In the preface to Prisoners of the North Berton himself noted that he was as much a prisoner as the five men and women whose lives he profiled in the book.

McKillop does not present us with his subject on a pedestal. He endeavors to clear away some of the mythology that Berton built around his own life. Like his good friend W.O. Mitchell, Berton was, in many ways, his own greatest creation. He did not build that myth nor accomplish all that he did alone. His wife, Janet, deserves much of the credit. His agent and manager Elsa Franklin, who is probably not happy with McKillop’s interpretation of their relationship, helped him shape his image and manage his affairs. Several dedicated research assistants and aids, chief among them Barbara Sears, helped him shape his books.

Berton had his ups and downs, and though he finished strong, he came in and out of fashion several times during his long career. It remains to be seen how he will be viewed by history and whether his works will remain in print once the indefatigable Franklin retires from the scene, but I find it hard to imagine a Canada in which his interpretation of events has entirely disappeared.