Moving Away From My Hometown Helped Me Learn More About It

A trip to China taught me about the “Bethune House” in Gravenhurst, ON

By Tara Collum

When you see something everyday, it becomes invisible, another part of the background scenery. I wouldn’t now be begging friends and family to climb into the giant Muskoka chairs on either end of my hometown if I still lived in Gravenhurst.

Like those chairs, most small towns have attractions. And one of ours is being the birthplace of a famous doctor that many Canadians have never heard of. 

The Bethune House is a home decorated in the style of the Bethune family’s 1890s era. While I never heard any teachers ever mention him again, my first visit to the Bethune House was for a grade school field trip. One visit would probably have been enough, if I hadn’t stumbled across two books in my high school library, Cottage Gothic and Northern Comfort, by author Martin Avery. They were published in the mid 1980s by indie Can Lit publisher Oberon Press. They sparked my continued interest in Bethune. 

I can’t remember if I found the short stories by chance, or if they were recommended, but they were set in a fictional version of our town dubbed Bethune. The stories detailed everyday moments of small-town life, like going uptown to eat french fries at the Chinese restaurant. It also told of history I had never thought about, like how the Bethune House was only made into a museum after people started coming to town and knocking on the door to ask if the house was Dr. Bethune’s birthplace, and if they could have a tour. The books also claimed our town didn’t embrace Bethune’s legacy because he was a communist.

Gravenhurst doesn’t necessarily keep the Dr. Norman Bethune connection under wraps. Beside the museum, there is a namesake main drive, and a prominent statue in the main square. Although the statue is fairly new, and wasn’t unveiled until the early 2000s. 

After I left home for post-secondary studies, I started to notice how many schools were named after the doctor, from a college at York University to a collegiate institute in Scarborough. I didn’t really understand the extent of his worldwide popularity until I became an English as a Second Language teacher, and learned from my Chinese students that he was something of a hero to the people of China.

In the summer of 2011, I traveled to China to teach at a summer camp, and a picture of Norman Bethune hung in the hallway with his name written in Mandarin and in pinyin, Hēnglì Nuò’ěrmàn Báiqiú’ēn. 

I still didn’t know very much about him, but being from Gravenhurst was a good ice-breaker. Before my trip, a co-worker at a learning centre I tutored at, explained to me that it was popular among Chinese people to come to my hometown to look at the autumn leaves and tour the Bethune House.

It wasn’t until I was a student again myself, enrolled in a community worker program that I finally learned more about Norman Bethune. On a project on famous leaders, I convinced my group to pick Norman Bethune. No one in my group had ever heard of him, but agreed because the teacher had mentioned him in class as an example of a community hero. 

While practicing medicine, Bethune was struck with tuberculosis, and almost died. During his recovery, he painted on gigantic scrolls. This experience inspired him to teach art to poor children, and to travel the world to help others. Not only did he help China during wartime with Japan, he also served as an army surgeon during the Spanish Civil war. It wasn’t only those abroad he helped, he was an early advocate for universal health care in Canada, and invented countless pioneering medical devices and techniques, such as blood transfusion and mobility devices for field hospitals. 

Our project included a replica army tent with a tiny stretcher, a model of a hospital with a roof that lifted off to reveal an operating table, and a copy of Bethune’s eulogy written by Chairman Mao that Chinese school children still memorize and recite.

While they only met once, Mao thought very highly of Bethune, and wrote In Memory of Norman Bethune the doctor’s “spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people. We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. With this spirit everyone can be very useful to the people. A man’s ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people.”

We also came across the fact that despite being a humanitarian, many people don’t like Bethune because of his work in China, and membership in the Communist Party. There are newspaper columnists who believe that Bethune is only praised to gain favour with China. A recent Globe and Mail article wondered if we are so keen lately to tear down statues, we should tear his down as well. 

I still had more to learn, and all the pieces came together when I visited the Norman Bethune House for the second time. My mom had never been there before, despite living in town for over 40 years, and joined me because we had free admission with the Canada 150 Discovery Pass. 

 I learned from the exhibits that Bethune was frustrated by patients getting sick from infection after he operated on them, which inspired him to improve the standard of living conditions, and advocate for the poor.

The house is surrounded by gardens, outdoor displays, and adjacent to the grounds is a newly renovated glass-fronted museum. The statue in the town square is one of many, the Bethune House featured several statues.

Being at the house for the second time, I found it amazing that I was also drawn to visit China.  And like the Muskoka chairs I would have missed out on the Bethune House, and my connection to the man and his history if I never left the small town we’re both from.

Tara Collum is a freelance writer, community worker, book hoarder, and aspiring cat lady.