efore we begin, I have been on a bit of Canadian History kick lately. I have been drinking in as much about Canadian History as a possibly can. I have no real explanation for this sudden thirst about Canada's past. I can only say I was deeply shamed and angered recently when I realized I could name more American Presidents than I could Canadian Prime Minister's. I set myself the goal of learning as much about Canada's Founding Fathers and its leaders as I possibly could. Reading Laurier Lapierre's book on Sir Wilfrid Laurier was the first step in that goal.
Laurier Lapierre begins his book Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Romance of Canada saying:
I have a need to tell you the story of Wilfrid Laurier. You see, he has been a part of me since the day my paternal grandmother, who was an indefatigable Liberal and had seen him once from afar, commanded that I be named after the grand homme she so admired.
I too should make a confession. I also have always been fascinated with Wilfrid Laurier. I am not sure if its because his name is such a strong, honorable sounding name or if its because on and off for 25 years I've been staring up at a mountain named for him. I think it's the latter reason more than anything because the mountain that bears Laurier's name is surrounded by mountains that bear the names of other Canada leaders such as Mackenzie Bowell, Mackenzie King, and Arthur Meighen and I share the same curiosity about them that I do about Wilfrid Laurier. Perhaps it is a curiosity in me that pushes me to want to know who these men were and what they did that lead to picturesque mountains bearing their names.
Lapierre's book is beautifully written book. It reads like something out of Keats, or Lord Byron. In fact, Sir Wilfrid Laurier is pictured very much like a Byronic hero. He is the loner, the man plagued by doubts about his abilities and his health. However, Lapierre's book is also a love story. It's a love story on two levels. The love story of Laurier and his Canada and it's a love story about Laurier and his Zoe. In that sense, this book diverges from the traditional retelling of a politicians life. Most books of this type focus merely on the public life of the individual and if they turn at all to the private life its to tell of the more sordid details that there may be.
This is no such book. There are no sordid details about Laurier. There are intellectual romances but not physical ones. Early on Lapierre says, Laurier's wife Zoe realized she could not be everything to Laurier. She could only satisfy him partially intellectually. The understanding Zoe had was amazing. Her understanding went so far as to permit Laurier to conduct a lifelong friendship with Emilie. Early on Zoe recognized that Emilie could satisfy that other side to Laurier and her entire life Zoe never doubted that was the only thing Laurier found satisfying about Emilie. All indications are that there was no affair between Emilie and Wilfrid Laurier - that it was indeed a rare Victorian era platonic friendship.
Lapierre brings to light all of Laurier's hidden fears regarding success and his health. Laurier was plagued his entire life by poor health. Most of his health problems stemmed from chronic bronchitis but he secretly feared that it was tuberculosis which took also took his mother.
The key Lapierre's book is its emotion. The emotion is conveyed beautifully. Whether the book was written in English or French originally it does not matter, the emotion is there always underlying the book.
Laurier lost the federal election in 1911 and spent the next 8 years in opposition but this is how Lapierre describes Laurier's first night at home with Zoe after his election defeat:
[Zoe] is waiting alone in a straight chair in the hall. No one is around. Hardly any lights are turned on. She has a cold dinner placed in his library. When she faintly hears the engine of his car and sees dimly the headlights (Zoe was legally blind by this point in her life) turning the corner onto Chapel, she stands, pats her hair, straightens her dress, and peers into what is now for her an almost total darkness. . . .She takes his hand and kisses it and tries to hold her tears. He smiles, and his lips find her forehead and linger there for a moment that is important to both of them. Together they go up the stairs to their bedroom. He entrusts her to her Irish maid, while talking to her softly about going to bed. She nods in agreement and he leaves, turning at the door to smile at her, knowing well that she cannot see that far.
She is not asleep. She feels his tears through the walls that separate them. She gets out of bed, cannot find her slippers, but no matter. She gropes her way to the door, opens it and walks down the hall to where he is, hanging all the way on tables and chairs. Another door. She knows where he is sitting. She kneels beside him and takes him in her arms. She strokes his hair, as she had in Arthabaska in the defeat of 1877. And she whispers: "La Reve! You still have the dream." And he sobs on her shoulder.
This is the tone of the book throughout. The book though is about much more. It goes into great detail about the trials that Laurier faced while a House of Commons member, while Prime Minister, and, finally, while leader of the opposition. Reading the book, I found that I finally placed Laurier in a context. You see when we study history or look into the life of one individual we all tend to do so with very narrow vision. We forget or are not exposed to all the events and people surrounding the individual in question. This is what I found so unique about Lapierre's book. We tend to forget that Laurier witnessed Confederation in 1867, that he met and knew the likes of John A. MacDonald, George Etienne-Cartier, and Charles Tupper. We forget that Laurier witnessed the great fire which destroyed an entire wing of the House of Commons in 1916. It's to his credit that Lapierre brings in these outside events.
Millions of Americans have read the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and tried to emulate the life he recommends in his autobiography. Lapierre's book might and could very well do the same thing for an entirely new generation of Canadians.
Laurier was always concerned about what was right and just not just what was politically possible and that is a something sorely lacking from politics in the late 20th Century. During the election campaign of 1911 Laurier gave a speech in which he said:
Henry of Navarre at the battle of Ivry said: "Follow my white plume, and you will find it always in the forefront of honour." Like Henry IV, I say to you young men: "Follow my white plume" - the white hairs of my sixty-nine years - and you will, I believe I can say it without boasting, find it always in the forefront of honour. (p. 329)
This was good but what Laurier said in his last public address was even better and wonderful advice to us all:
Banish all doubt and hate from your life. Let your souls be ever open to the prompting of faith and the gentle influence of brotherly love. Be adamant against the haughty, be gentle and kind to the weak. Let your and purpose, in good report or ill, in victory or defeat, be so to live, so to strive, so to serve as to do your part to raise ever higher the standard of life and leaving.
Lapierre writes of Laurier's final days. Laurier suffered several strokes and finally found rest oat 11:40am on the 17th of February. His beloved Zoe died two years later at the age of eighty. I'll end as Lapierre ends vouching that this statement is true of the entire book: "And so ends the story of Wilfrid and Zoe." (p. 367)