Winner of the Dafoe Book Prize
Winner of the University of British Columbia Medal for Canadian Biography
1995 marked the 100th anniversary of that most charismatic and enigmatic public figure, the thirteenth prime minister of Canada, John George Diefenbaker. Beloved and reviled with equal passion, he was a politician possessed of a flamboyant, self-fabulizing nature that is the essential ingredient of spellbinding biography.
After several runs at political office, Diefenbaker finally reached the Commons in 1940; sixteen years later he was leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. In 1958, after a campaign that dazzled the voters, the Tories won the largest majority in the nation's history: the Liberal party was shattered, its leader, Lester Pearson, humiliated by an electorate that had chosen to "follow John."
Diefenbaker's victory promised a long and sunny Conservative era. It was not to be: instead Dief gave the country a decade of continuous convulsion, marked by his government's defeat in 1963 and his own forced departure from the leadership in 1967, a very public drama that divided his party and riveted the nation. When Diefenbaker died in 1979, he was given a state funeral modeled - at his own direction - on those of Churchill and Kennedy. It culminated in a transcontinental train journey and burial on the bluffs overlooking Saskatoon, alongside the archive that houses his papers - the only presidential-style library built for a Canadian prime minister.
Canadians embraced the image of Dief as a morally triumphant underdog, even as they were repelled by his outrageous excesses. He revived a moribund party and gave the country a fresh sense of purpose but he was no match for the dilemmas of the Cold War of Quebec nationalism, or the subtleties of the country's relations with the United States.
This compelling biography, illuminating both legend and man and the nation he helped shape, was among the most highly praised books of the year.