A fictionalized account of a life is a bit of a chimera. How much, you wonder, is more or less true? Where has the author taken liberties? The result is that you spend almost as much time consulting Wikipedia and Google as you do reading the novel. Fascinatingly, the character at the center of Dennis Bock's second novel The Communist's Daughter may not be a real person, but the man who writes to her, H. Norman Bethune, was. The real Bethune was a pioneering, Canadian-born surgeon who treated the war-wounded in both Spain and China during the late 1930s. His methods in the field and innovations in blood transfusion presaged the MASH units of future wars. Surgical implements are named after him, Mao Tse-tung respected him, and even today China has hospitals named after him. But in this epistolary novel, the doctor writes letters to the infant daughter he's never seen, who was conceived in Spain during a brief wartime affair with a Swedish social worker. Bock's style, perhaps unavoidably, is straightforward and lean. Rapturous descriptions of sunsets or mountain ranges are rare, though there are graphic passages describing the trench warfare of World War I. Bethune is too focused on his patients, what he must do to ease their suffering and the harsh conditions they all struggle under, to be florid. In Bock's rendering, he comes across as a man more admirable than likable, as his commitment to his work, and to the Communism that he believes is the last best hope of mankind, makes him morally inflexible and intolerant. But his rigidity is moderated by self-knowledge, his willingness to forego wealth and comfort and to risk his health for the cause: Bethune's death, both in the book and in reality, is stingingly ironic. That Block brings this difficult man to life is an accomplishment.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.