Mackenzie King: Friends & Lovers
by Louise Reynolds
Published by Trafford
248 pages, 2005
Another Take on a Canadian Great
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
Over a dozen books, a television docudrama and two plays have been written on William Mackenzie King. From Hardy's Mackenzie King of Canada in 1949 to Stacey's A Very Double Life: The Private Life of Mackenzie King and probably the most popular, Hutchinson's The Incredible Canadian, published in 1959, the enigmatic prime minister has titillated readers. Depending on which works we've read, most of us conjure up a man who was into mediums, Ouija boards and séances, who never married and may have visited prostitutes, a mama's boy who never outgrew those bounds even after his mother's death and a politician who went almost nowhere without his beloved little dog, Pat.
Politically we recall him as the Liberal Prime Minister who served for the longest period: over 21 years in office. It's a record in British Commonwealth history. The 10th Prime Minister of Canada, who first took up office in 1921, he is considered by many to have been Canada's greatest Prime Minister.
With all that information out there, one wonders why an author would want to revisit the man and his life. Reynolds says that despite "all the books written about Mackenzie King, no one has written about him simply as a person, as a man with ordinary weaknesses, strengths, ideals, shortcomings, and imperfections. No one has written about him simply as a friend, as a family member, as a young man in love, as an old man with an old man's concerns."
The author's unusual approach, therefore, is to organize her chapters using a very different angle: six chapters for six friends, two men and four women, and one chapter dealing with all of the Governors-General, some of them friends, some not.
You know those films that approach their plot from differing points of view? This biography is a little like that. It revisits certain periods in King's life while it picks up a different strand, emphasizing a different aspect. Obviously there are dangers in doing this. For one thing, it's impossible to avoid repetition. Also, by narrowing the scope so tightly, it's probable that some material essential to understanding the text and the man will not fit into any chapter and may therefore be left out.
What is gained is a fresh perspective and sense of originality. If one chapter doesn't hold your interest, you can read another. Each chapter can be perused on its own merit. This means the book can be read at leisure, unlike most books where the momentum gains as the chapters proceed necessitating a memory of what has gone before.
Another original touch is found in the style of the writing. It reads very much like early to mid-20th century. This touch ensures that the diary entries and letters that lace the biography do not jar with the text that follows. It also means, however, that modern day readers may find themselves frustrated with the lack of details and specifics, especially around personal facts. These days we want our biographies to not censor or tiptoe around the less savory parts. So -- did King really believe his mother was reappearing in his dog, Pat? Did he have a sexual relationship with Marjorie Herridge? How did she die, anyway? What happened to the King family's wealth? Modern readers want biographical writers to "go out on a limb" and sometimes jump off. They thirst for specifics. Reynolds' is a cautious approach.
King's close friendship as a young man with Bert Harper, his family's meddling in his hesitant love affair with Mathilde Gossert and his long association and employment with Rockefeller make for enlightening reading, however. How many of us knew that Rockefeller financially assisted King toward the end of his life, including presenting him with $100,000 worth of stocks, worth a great deal in the late 1940s? When she presents interesting and little known details like these, Reynolds is at her best. | February 2006
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.