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Paul Butler: taking on the "good doctor"


Paul Butler is a versatile and accomplished novelist, having written about such well-known personalities as Sheila NaGeira and Peter Easton.

Burton K. Janes

Now, with the publication of "The Good Doctor," he has turned his attention to the esteemed medical missionary, Wilfred T. Grenfell.

"I became aware of just how successful Grenfell was in colonizing Newfoundland and Labrador history," Butler says in an email interview with this columnist. "Suddenly it occurred to me that the iconography that has grown up around him can be examined in exactly the same way that the early stories of any celebrity can be examined, i.e., as someone grooming themselves for stardom, so to speak, someone building a legacy."

In short, Grenfell’s "story is about him and no one else. The landscape in the story that is relayed to us over and over is very faint."

Butler suggests one need look no farther than "Adrift on an Ice Pan," Grenfell’s dramatic record of human survival.

"It’s curious how often I’ve read and heard about ... Grenfell’s endangerment, the slaying of his dogs, Grenfell’s escape — and how seldom I’ve heard about the fate of the boy he set out to save."

So, Butler set out to "humanize" Grenfell, perhaps present a less sanitized and, I might add, refreshing portrait of him.

"If you were trying to dramatize Grenfell as he is believed by universal admirers of him," Butler contends. "I suspect that despite the extraordinary drama of individual events, you would end up with a rather dull novel."

"The Good Doctor" is anything but dull.

An assembly gathers in Maine in 1910 to listen to a fund-raising lecture by Grenfell. But something’s wrong. The man at the lectern suddenly is challenged from the floor. The speaker is a Grenfell imposter.

Fast forward 30 years: a journalist tracks down the Grenfell impersonator. As medical students in the 1880s, the two had shadowed each other in a London hospital and elsewhere, vying for the affections of a nurse whose influence turns out to be decisive for them.

"It’s really the internal struggles to which we are drawn," Butler states. The author’s fertile imagination enables him to craft an engaging, if atypical, novel.

"Part of the exercise to begin with," he says, "was to try and imagine Grenfell as a young man, and part of that is trying to imagine who will like him and who will be suspicious of him."

I wondered about the actual process Butler followed in writing "The Good Doctor."

"My process in a book like this," he explains, "is to do a lot of research and reading, both about the person and the times, particularly about currents of thought and belief, the philosophical context of the times, if you like. Then I let it lie and not try to write straightaway until an idea properly forms."

This, he continues, "is why my first real notion about Grenfell’s life and times was about ‘playing a part.’ The theme had to be about pretending to be someone you are not."

At one point, Butler has the Grenfell impersonator ask, "Aren’t we all imposters?"

"The search for personal authenticity is central to the novel," the author points out.

"The missionary, by nature, has to build an identity because he/she is trying to sell something more than goods and services. My main characters ... all have the missionary impulse, and it comes out in different ways ... So, unless we’ve achieved the ultimate in personal authenticity, which is impossible, we must have something of the imposter about us."

In an Author’s Note at the end of his book, Butler juxtaposes "story" and "tale."

"It’s curious," he writes, "how language conspires to question any claim to objective truth ... Any series of events, seen through somebody’s eyes, is described with one of those two simple words that imply creation."

Butler elaborates: "the person who writes their own story is under many constraints, and inevitably plays the political game of presenting his or her own case. There is a saying that if you want to tell the truth write fiction, because nonfiction has so many blurring, distorting influences."

In Butler’s fiction, he is "questioning whether the Grenfell story — from his own and others’ pens — in the nonfiction realm can claim to be the complete objective truth either."

Regardless, "The Good Doctor" is a rousing good read that gives a needed and welcome counterbalance to the prevailing Grenfellian myth.

"The Good Doctor" is published by Pennywell Books, an imprint of Flanker Press, St. John’s.

 — Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net

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