Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Remembering John Buchan

Today, February 11th, marks the 69th anniversary of the death of John Buchan. I know Buchan best for his novels, first brushing near them when I saw Alfred Hitchcock's film version of the 39 Steps. My Uncle Ted later gave me a collection of Buchan's five Richard Hannay novels (all stories featuring the hero of the 39 Steps) and I've been an immense fan ever since. Last year I went through the university's collection of Buchan novels and read everything of theirs which I didn't own myself.

Today gives me an opportunity to speak about a book I recently finished, John Buchan: the Presbyterian Cavalier, a biography by Andrew Lownie. My parents gave it to me years ago, but it was only weeks ago that I finally read it.

It really is a fine biography, especially for someone who has read as much of Buchan as I have. Buchan's stories are all brought up in the course of the chronology along with some opinions from the author (I agree with him, A Prince of the Captivity isn't that great). Much is made of the various recurring characters who link the novels together, as well as the recurring themes - prominently, the hero who does good work but finds no reward. I was also surprised to learn that the novel Huntingtower was made into a film and that the film apparently did much to help Buchan's election as an MP.

But the real revelation of this biography was to discover what a great Governor General he was for Canada. Much as I like his writing, I knew I couldn't expect him to be much of a politician. And yet, he did so many great things! One interesting facet was his emphasis on national and international pride. He wanted Canada to be unified from coast-to-coast and made several trips to the west and the north to shed light on the areas oft-overlooked in the east. He also wanted Canada to be proud of its king & queen and helped organize their first-ever royal visit in 1939. He also wished Canada to have strong ties to the USA because he wanted the USA to ally itself with England and saw that Canada was the connection needed. He was friends to Franklin D. Roosevelt although after entering WWII he had to overcome the USA's "neutrality" by communicating to FDR through clandestine means.

Also, given some of the anti-Jewish rhetoric which appeared in some of his novels, it was heartening to discover that Buchan was not only pro-Jews, but a Zionist. When he became Governor General it was disheartening to the Jewish organizatoins he had supported as an MP because they were losing one of their best voices in parliament. And yet, God had his hand in that appointment; Buchan helped bring Jews over from Europe to Canada after Hitler came to power, simultaneously helping to populate parts of Canada and saving Jewish lives.

All in all, he seems to have been a fine man, the rare author who you come to admire more as you increase in your knowledge of him.

"We can pay our debts to the past by putting the future in debt to ourselves." - J.B.

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