Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Nino Ricci, Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Over the past year, Penguin Books has published eighteen books in its new Extraordinary Canadians series. Edited by John Ralston Saul, the series attempts to provide readers with a series of accessible biographies of well-known and significant Canadians ranging from Stephen Leacock to Big Bear to Emily Carr. Saul has selected a diverse array of authors, most of them popular writers, although with a few historians in the mix, largely on the basis of their writing abilities and their personal connections to their subjects.

Given the task of covering Canada’s highly controversial federalist prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau is novelist Nino Ricci, author of the Governor General Award-winning The Origin of Species (a compelling read itself, although I don’t generally blog on my fiction reading). Ricci grew up in the Trudeau era and lived in Montreal in his twenties in an (admittedly unsuccessful) effort to embrace bilingualism. Beyond this, Ricci poignantly observes in the closing pages of the book that his own life was clearly marked by Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms on the day he served as best man at a the wedding of two close gay friends.

Personal anecdotes regarding how Trudeau shaped Ricci’s own lived experience enliven this lively narrative of Trudeau’s life. For those who have read much of the academic work on Trudeau’s life, much of what appears here will be familiar. Ricci draws heavily on recent books by John English and Max & Monique Nemni to examine Trudeau’s childhood, adolescence and life to the age of 40. Other chapters cover the major political highlights of Trudeau’s political career, including the October Crisis, the 1980 Quebec referendum, and the patriation of the Constitution. Although Ricci tends to side with Trudeau’s detractors on both his handling of the FLQ crisis and his dealings with René Lévesque, he provides a generally even-handed approach to these events, noting Trudeau’s reluctance to impose the War Measures Act even when Robert Bourassa pleaded for it, and acknowledging that it was highly unlikely that Lévesque would ever have signed a new constitutional arrangement. One may quibble with Ricci’s account of the formation of the Kitchen Accord that led to the 1982 constitution, but his is not a polemical account of Trudeau’s years, which I suspect will make it palatable to both Trudeau’s detractors and admirers.

As with any biography, Ricci was faced with choices of what to emphasize and what to exclude. There is little here about Trudeau’s foreign policy or his post-1984 life (except for a few brief pages on the 1987-92 constitutional battles) or – perhaps most notably in light of the fact that he included a detailed chapter on Margaret Sinclair and his three sons – the fact that Trudeau fathered a daughter with Deborah Coyne. Those omissions aside, Ricci provides a lively and highly readable narrative on the significant issues he did choose to address and provides a good introduction to the highly complicated man who served as Canada’s prime minister for sixteen years. Those seeking richer detail should definitely check out John English’s Citizen of the World which covers the period of Trudeau’s life up to 1968, and the forthcoming second volume of this biography. But for those seeking a quick introduction, Ricci’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau is a highly engaging read. I read it on my flight from Calgary to Kitchener, and even as a historian of the Trudeau period, I found little to object to and much to praise in his treatment of the man’s life.

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At 6:53 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I may give it a go. All recent fiction seem like potboilers to me this summer. Oh, and for me, Trudeau wins for his comment about the nation's (non) place in the bedrooms alone...


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