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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
The narrator of Dennis Bock's new novel The Communist's Daughter is Norman Bethune, a Canadian writer, painter and surgeon famous in the 1930s for his service in World War I, the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China, and for his tireless devotion to the leftist cause.
The novel is written as a series of letters from Bethune, then serving with Mao Tse-tung's army in northern China, to the infant daughter he has never met. Not until the very end do these letters reveal the fate of the mother and the history of this unnamed child.
Bock, the author of The Ash Garden, titles his chapters "Envelope 1" through "Envelope 7." He presents them as Bethune's reflections on his life, written in the few hours he can spare between his unending medical rounds, his lectures on basic sanitation and field surgery to the Red Army's untrained medics, his monthly medical reports, his authoring of three textbooks on field medical procedure, and his pioneering work with blood transfusion and field hospitals.
Seamlessly, the novel moves back and forth in time and place, to the siege of Madrid and the failing struggle by the Spanish Republic against Franco's fascist armies; to Bethune's arrival in China and meeting with Mao Tse-tung; back to his earlier years in Ontario, Detroit and the Belgian battlefields of the Great War.
In Madrid, Bethune meets "your mother," Kajsa von Rothman, a young Swedish woman who, like Bethune, has joined the international fight to save Spain's beleaguered republic. Bethune refers often to Kajsa and their developing affair, but never - ominously - to their separation or the circumstances that caused him to leave Spain.
The pleasure of this excellently crafted novel is its mastery of timing and voice. Its interest lies in its re-examination in fiction of that era of leftist idealism that spans the period between the two world wars. That time was one of the most richly chronicled in fiction and, in taking on the Spanish Civil War as a subject, Bock inevitably evokes the legacy of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, among others.
Bock's style, like Hemingway's, has journalistic precision and conciseness, but lacks Hemingway's portentousness (and pretentiousness) in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Strangely, or maybe not that strangely, Bock evokes the bravery and idealism of that time with a sharpness and perspective lacking in many novels written then.
"I have acted with fine intentions and failed miserably," Bethune laments at one point. "I have given the best of myself and found that it wasn't enough."
Spoken by an eyewitness to the slaughters in Belgium and to the new (and to us now, painfully familiar) nihilistic style of warfare first practiced against civilians in Spain and China, these are not words of failure, but of an unbending courage and endurance.
David Walton is a writer and teacher who lives in Pittsburgh.