The best of biographies do more than paint a fascinating portrait. They also paint a rich and nuanced landscape of the times to bring the subject fully to life and in the process create utterly compelling, unforgettable works.
Peter the Great (1981), the Pulitzer prize-winning work by Robert K. Massie, is as monumental as the sweeping canvas of 17th- and 18th-century Europe and Russia. It is a magnificent story of a captivating historical figure, crowned co-tsar at the age of 10, and the transformation of Russia.
It chronicles the pivotal events that shaped the boy into a legend, including the massacre of several family members at the hands of the palace guards, his unquenchable curiosity about western ways, his obsession with the sea and the founding of the enormous Russian navy, his creation of an unbeatable army and his relationships with those he loved most.
Cod (1997) by Mark Kurlansky is an engaging biography of the fish that changed the world. It is a measured and vivid chronicle of the immense impact and influence the cod fishing industry has had on the human race and geopolitics. The author explores the relationship of the cod fishery to such historical events and eras as medieval Christianity and Christian observances, international conflicts between England and Germany over Icelandic cod, slavery, the molasses trade and the dismantling of the British Empire, including the American Revolution.
The volume also includes personal quotes and six centuries of cod recipes from slaves, kings, diplomats, fishermen and noted scholars such as Thoreau and Kipling, serving to illuminate the surprisingly deep hold the cod fishing industry exerted on society.
The Nazi Officer’s Wife (2000) by Edith Hahn-Beer is such an absorbing narrative that readers might forget it is memoir, not a novel. In the 1930s, Edith Hahn, an Austrian Jewish law school student in love with her boyfriend and living with her family in Vienna, lived an idyllic life. But it all came crashing down when the Nazis took over and sent her to a labour camp in Germany.
The young woman obtained permission to return to Vienna only to find her mother gone. Edith, living in terror and on the run, managed to create a fake identity, thanks to a Christian friend who let use her papers. Incredibly, a Nazi party member fell in love with her and even married her, despite knowing her true identity. She spent the rest of the war pretending to be a German hausfrau, in desperation and terror of one day being discovered.
All three titles, and many more biographies, are available at your Okanagan Regional Library, www.orl.bc.ca.
– Peter Critchley is a reference librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library. His column, Book Talk, runs monthly in The Morning Star.