As cub reporters, we felt sorry for the veterans of the newsroom when they were relegated to writing obituaries, presumably as a preamble to their own professional demise. Globe and Mail features writer Sandra Martin’s Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada, thoroughly demonstrates how wrong we were: Capturing the landscape of an entire life in a single column, on deadline, is among the most challenging – and sacred – of assignments.
In the midst of a prize-winning and dexterous writing career, Martin declares obituary writing to be the “most interesting and often the most terrifying” of newspaper jobs. “An obituary is the final word on a subject’s life – until a posthumous biography appears several years down the road. Getting it right, therefore, is daunting, given the urgency of the 24/7 news cycle.”
Now, Martin is taking another run at “getting it right” with her own collection of obits-turned-bios born of more research and reflection than her newspaper deadline allowed; other individuals are getting the “Martin” treatment for the first time (because she was off the “dead beat” when they died). While all of her subjects passed away around the turn of this century, their lives arc across the last one.
Her list sweeps from the renowned – former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and economist John Kenneth Galbraith – to the lesser-known – Trivial Pursuit co-inventor Chris Haney, fearless public-health nurse Lyle Creelman, and Kay Gimpel, raised in Alberta in the 1920s but destined for a life abroad in the secret service.
Not everyone on “Martin’s Fifty’ was born in Canada. Chinese head-tax survivor Ralph Lung Kee Lee was just 12 when he reached Vancouver with an identity tag around his neck and five years of indentured servitude ahead of him. A victim of Canada’s discriminatory immigration policies at the time, he endured long separations from his family, yet lived long enough to accept symbolically – at the age of 106 – Canada’s apology for “racist actions.” Martin, who has organized her obits by theme, places Lee alongside bargain-shopping entrepreneur Ed Mirvish, feminist Doris Anderson, TV magnate Ted Rogers, free-trade negotiator Simon Reisman and TV news anchor Peter Jennings. I won’t ruin the tales by telling you why.
Martin’s “icons” include musician Oscar Peterson, novelist Mordecai Richler, singer Maureen Forrester and activist June Callwood. Madam Justice Bertha Wilson, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada, made the list, although she was initially waved away from law school in the mid-1950s by a dean, who advised that she take up crocheting instead.
It’s a tricky business, describing a life lived with some accuracy, especially since eyewitnesses are often still around to contradict and quibble. Martin typically treads with care, sticking to the facts she has found, focusing on personal peccadilloes only when their weight has shaped a subject’s fortunes.
Scott Symons, author of Place d’Armes (“arguably CanLit’s first openly gay novel”), is portrayed as the exceptionally intelligent but strange son of a well-to-do Toronto family who is denounced for his personality and behaviour. Martin writes that he was a man of “voracious narcissism,” who “sucked the oxygen out of a room” and “wantonly inflicted pain in the most flagrant and public ways without any semblance of remorse.”
In this case and without taking sides, is it not wise – especially in “second look” obits – to wonder whether this social atrocity was exhibiting signs of undulating mental illness, which could explain, if not excuse, some of his “inexplicable” behaviour?
Martin’s is a select history of Canada told through extended obituaries of both the known and the unknown, researched energetically and written graciously by one of the country’s leading journalists.
You may not agree with all of Martin’s choices, you may even resent a few, but her tone is thoughtful, her scolding scant, and almost all of the transformative Canadians are presented in the context of their own human struggle – as it should be, perhaps, when those dissected have forever lost the ability to reply.
Paula Todd is a Seneca@York journalism professor. Her latest ebook is Finding Karla: How I Tracked Down an Elusive Serial Child Killer and Discovered a Mother of Three.