Pierre Berton 1920-2004

By Bryan • canada, personal • 1 Dec 2004

Canadian author and historian Pierre Berton died today.

Pierre Berton, who died yesterday at age 84 after a long career as an author, newspaper columnist, television and radio commentator may well be best remembered as the writer who made Canadian history fun.

Through his bestselling books — The National Dream, The Last Spike, The Dionne Years and Drifting Home — Berton turned a nation on to the fact that our history was worthy of study and was in many ways as exciting, and often more so, as that of the United States.

I credit Pierre Berton as one of the influences which steered my interest in history, especially military. When I was 11 I read “The Capture of Detroit”, an 88 page account of the fall of Fort Detroit to British and Canadian forces during the War of 1812. Intended for young readers like myself, the book was essentially just a watered down chapter rip from his epic 1812 historical account “Flames across the Border”. But I absolutely loved it. I was the one who was captured by the idea that Canada actually fought the United States. No one had ever bothered to tell me this before, and I proudly strutted around the playground as the only grade sixer who knew that Canada (although not yet a full nations) fought a war (and won) against the United States. Oddly enough, Canadian students are still not formally introduced to the War of 1812 until grade 10 social studies.

After that I was hooked. I dived into his “Adventures in Canadian History” series of historical narratives, reading all four of the Battles of the War of 1812 books. Finishing those, I moved into the other volumes…tackling previously unknown events in Canadian history such as the Klondike Gold Rush, settlement of the West and Arctic exploration.

The books were always very difficult to find in Northern British Columbia, so my grandparents (who lived in Montreal) were provided with an easy and inexpensive source of birthday and Christmas Presents.

I admit that my fascination with Pierre Berton has waned over the years. While I read several of his full accounts, I found a few of them to be really boring ( Niagara…I didn’t even get a quarter of the way into that one) while others I couldn’t put down (Marching As to War, Flames Across the Border, The Last Spike).

He was often criticized by academic historians for masquerading as a real historian (Berton rarely footnoted anything) and being to ‘narrative’ in his interpretation of historical events. But he was one of the, if not the only historical author that I’ve read who made reading history less of a chore and more of a leisure event.

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4 Responses

  1. Og

    Don’t forget that fascinating world underground, Snavely the snake, Earless Osdick and Yukon King.
    OG OG OG OG OG

  2. Fraser

    I’m with you B, I loved Pierre Burton. It’s sad that he doesnt get as much credit as he deserves for all he’s done for Canada (Don Cherry just finished 7th overall on the list of CBC’s “Greatest Canadians”, Burton wasn’t mentioned in the top 10)

  3. Bryan

    Yeah, Don Cherry’s got his moments, but I don’t think any of them equal a spot in the top ten.

    PB was in Victoria about 2 years ago reading from “Marching as to War” and signing copies. There was a $10 admission…I’m kind of kicking myself for not shelling it out…

  4. Graham Kennedy

    What were the exact words by Mr . Berton often used when he remarked on the importance of history?

    It was something about not knowing where you are if you don’t know where you have been

    Thank you.

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