I’ve been flirtin’ with Pierre Berton …

’cause he’s so smart in his books.

So, a few weeks ago I was wandering through a bookstore downtown looking for some books to read, and I picked up a few historical ones. The first one I read was “The War of 1812”, which combined Pierre Berton’s two books on the subject: “The Invasion of Canada” and “Flames Across the Border”. As Berton is Canadian, there is a bit of a focus on the Canadian side of the battle — most noticeably when he talks about the impact it had on creating a Canadian identity — but for the most part he does a good job of describing the details of both sides of the conflict.

He also has a very interesting style, one which might be more prominent in historical works than I think but that I personally haven’t come across very often. He writes much of the time in a third person present tense, describing thoughts and actions as “Historical figure knows that they need to attack, and so prepares his defenses accordingly”. This makes the events seem more immediate, and not just a description of what happened in the past. Even if you know what the outcome is — especially since sometimes Berton tells you what it is before he describes it — you almost can’t help but be caught up in the immediacy of the event and feel that it’s happening right now. To be honest, I actually think that the WWII documentary “The World at War” often pulls off the same trick, which might explain why I like it so much myself. Maybe it’s a British thing …

Anyway, Berton is also much more colloquial and much less academic than other works I’ve read, particularly when it comes to calling out leaders who are, shall we say, less than intelligent or brave, especially when those traits lead to unnecessary deaths. Berton’s lists of adjectives for failing leaders are quite impressive, and generally entertaining. And since he’s usually right — and since he will generally give props for reasonable caution or heroic bravery — you are more likely to be amused at his comments rather than offended by them, unless you happen to consider that person a hero. He’s also very generous to the native allies of the British, focusing on them more than a work written at the time he was writing might be expected to, but neither emphasizes their savagery nor ignores or excuses it. At the end, he even concludes that the side that probably lost the most in that war were, in fact, the native tribes.

As for the war itself, Berton’s account makes it clear that it was a very strange war. Most of the people on both sides — even the leaders — didn’t really want the war. There were some “War Hawks” on both sides that saw it as a good, either as an attempt to gain more territory or to give the other side a bloody nose and regain honour lost either to the Revolutionary War or to the often draconian and insulting policies of the British, especially impressment of British citizens from American ships. The sad thing is that the really insulting policy that caused the Americans to declare war was repealed right before hostilities began … but once started ending them was not easy, especially with both sides burning villages and committing other atrocities that created very bad feelings on both sides.

But as Berton says, this war is what created the Canadian identity and made it not only distinct from the American identity, but proud of that distinctness. To this day, Canadians are more proud of the traits they gained from their British heritage than they are of the traits they gained by cultural osmosis from the United States. We are less individualistic, less boorish, more polite, more concerned about others and other nations, more welcoming and accepting of other cultures than Americans, and we take great pride in that. And the seeds of that started from us wanting to separate ourselves from those people who invaded us and burned our villages and killed our people, and grew from that even as we became, in country terms, staunch allies and good friends. We may no longer hate Americans, but we’re still happy to not be Americans for the most part. And this makes me wonder if some of the reason for stronger reactions to calls to become more of an American style republic and remove the Queen as Head of State are spawned by a subconscious cultural reaction to the idea of becoming more American.

At any rate, this was a very entertaining book that taught me things about the War of 1812 that I didn’t know before. It is a book that I will almost certainly read again at some point.

2 Responses to “I’ve been flirtin’ with Pierre Berton …”

  1. Thoughts on Thrawn … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] or “The Last Jedi” yet. However, I was browsing in the local Chapters — picking up a slew of Pierre Berton books — and I went to look to see what they had for Star Wars books. I came across one written by […]

  2. More Flirtin’ With Berton … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] it was about a year ago that I first talked about reading books by that Canadian icon, Pierre Berton. I did buy and read a […]

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