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.