Sunday, November 30, 2008

What I learned from Pierre Berton

Pierre Berton died four years ago today.

In 1987 I dropped in on a writers’ party at Pierre Berton’s Kleinburg home. It was a slightly tense arrival for me. The day before the Globe and Mail had published Pierre’s quite negative review of The Illustrated History of Canada, to which I was a contributor (and one of Berton’s specific targets in the review). I did not know Berton well, and I wondered if I should stay away from his party. But I’d been invited and I thought what the hell, and I went.

It was a lively, sociable afternoon. I relaxed. At one point, someone proposed a group photo and I found myself lined up right beside Pierre. “Gee, I hope my co-authors don’t see this!” I said loudly. Pierre laughed. “Yes, don’t send Ramsay Cook a copy of this one,” he called out. And we both guffawed, and the picture was taken and the party resumed.

It was a powerful moment for me. It stayed with me, encapsulated this way. When you play in the big leagues, two things happen. People throw hardballs; and, you don’t take it personally. Ever since then, I think, I have been comfortable saying what I think of other people’s books and ideas, whether or not I know the people involved. I’ve gotten better at reading other people’s criticisms for the ideas in them and not strictly for my own ego. It’s part of being a serious writer, I think. I did not refrain from expressing some reservations about Berton’s Arctic Grail in a review a year later, but I didn’t think of it as an attack on him.

Both the Illustrated History and the Arctic Grail were hugely successful books, in any case. Berton thought Grail might have been his best book, and the Illustrated History of Canada got mostly excellent reviews, has continued to sell well for twenty years in various updated editions, and is in print in French and Spanish as well as English.

Pierre and I were never close, but I thought we had something better: a professional relationship. Once I put him and Peter Newman into a taxi and made the taxi driver’s day – he could hardly drive for talking over his shoulder to his two heroes in the back. In 1993 I wrote an admiring profile of him for the Beaver (they reran it when he died), and later he told me he liked how I had structured it. The idea that we could be companionable whatever we said of each other’s work seemed important.

I write this to recall the life of someone whose like we shall not see again. But my friend Brian McKillop covers some of this relationship very briefly in his authoritative and scrupulously researched biography Pierre Berton -- and I think he gets this small detail absolutely wrong in an otherwise fine book.
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