Pierre Berton: A Biography

By A. B. McKillop. McClelland & Stewart, 791 pp, $37.99, hardcover

If you’re looking for a bow tie that exemplifies Canadian history in the second half of the 20th century, really, all you’ve got is Pierre Berton’s.

From his days as a mischievous wartime student journalist at the Ubyssey, through his groundbreaking social criticism in 1965’s The Comfortable Pew (which sold 175,000 copies in Canada alone), and even to his near-deathbed 2004 TV appearance with Rick Mercer showing Canadians how to roll a proper joint, Berton defined the issues of his day. He also knew how to make a point.

A. B. McKillop’s Pierre Berton: A Biography is a carefully measured and nuanced tribute to this man. At 791 pages, it is of course rife with detail. Mostly, it’s the book that Berton deserves. It honours his achievements without fawning. It details his shortcomings without meanness. It’s readable and thoughtful.

For too many Canadians, Berton is just that guy from Front Page Challenge who wrote Klondike and The National Dream, books that only their grandparents would read. McKillop gives us many other Bertons.

The Toronto Star newspaper columnist who championed consumer issues and fiercely opposed capital punishment. The guy who in 1963 outraged the country and his employers at Maclean’s with a column telling people to lighten up about teenage premarital sex. The hard-drinking workaholic who once shot 16 installments of a TV show in just two days in London, England. The prolific family man whose The Secret World of Og helped change perceptions of what should be permitted in children’s literature. The mediocre novelist whose fictional soft-core sex shenanigans were released with an elaborate What’s My Line?–style “who wrote this book?” prank at a tony Toronto hotel.

The world is besieged by tawdry best-selling biographies that don’t correspond even vaguely to the actual lives of their subjects. That’s not a problem here. Notwithstanding historian Jack Granatstein’s clash with Berton over his sin of “consciously [making] his works ”˜interesting’ ”, readers might even wish for less information and more storytelling.

But McKillop—chair of Carleton’s history department—does not betray his pedigree.

It’s everyone’s good fortune, however, that Berton—who once conspired to paste the head of ailing politician Gerald McGeer on the body of a hospitalized cop for use on the front page of the Vancouver Sun—also stayed true to his (rather more reckless) nature.