A Victoria author has received the prestigious 2014 Pierre Berton Award, recognizing his contribution to raising awareness about Canadian history.
Mark Zuehlke was at Rideau Hall in Ottawa Monday to receive the Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media. Presented by Gov. Gen. David Johnston, the award celebrates those who have brought Canadian history to a wider audience.
The award comes as Zuehlke launches the 11th title in his acclaimed Canadian Battle Series of books last week, Forgotten Victory: First Canadian Army and the Cruel Winter of 1944-45, the untold story of how the Canadian Army paved the way for an Allied victory in Europe in the Second World War through an attack against the Rhineland.
To receive the award bearing Berton’s name and for the body of his contribution, as opposed to a single title, is particularly rewarding.
“I personally think Pierre Berton was a person who truly made is legitimate to write popular history in Canada,” Zuehlke says.
Harbour Publishing describes the bestselling Canadian Battle Series as “the most detailed account of any army during World War II ever written by a single author. The series continues to confirm Zuehlke’s reputation as one of the nation’s leading popular military historians.”
“To me, the whole idea is to take these stories and put them in the hands of the people and be informed by them,” Zuehlke says.
When Zuehlke wrote the first book in what would become the Canadian Battle Series, Ortona, he had no idea of the series to come. Sparked by a group of veterans speaking about their experiences at the long-ago battle, it was one Zuehlke himself hadn’t heard of.
“I thought it was going to be a one-off but it turned out it did quite well,” he says.
Several more titles about the Italian campaign followed, along with books about Juno, Dieppe and other campaigns deserving recognition. His fifth title in the series, Holding Juno, captured the 2006 City of Victoris Butler Book Prize.
“From there I started looking at campaigns that I thought hadn’t been given their due,” Zuehlke says.
While he had no finite end to the series in mind, he anticipates 14 or 15 books in all.
Why are all these stories important?
“I think it’s important because when you look at the generation that went through World War II . . . when they came back, everything they did for the rest of their lives was incredibly pushed forward by these experiences,” Zuehlke says, pointing to the creation of the welfare state as an example. “They had depended on each other for their lives and that kind of bond was an unbreakable one.”
Upon their return, that desire to take care of each other continued.
“And of course, it affected all of us because we were all descended from that generation.”
At the same time, because so many of that generation did not speak about their experiences, it’s the rolls of historians and authors like Zuehlke to share them with those who came after.
The response to the series has been very positive, Zuehlke says. Initially coming from the expected veterans and history community, “readership has shifted,” he notes.
Readers are now 40 to 45 per cent female, many in the 35 to 65-year old group; the male readers fall in a similar demographic. These are people who are interested in their family stories, and learning about the generations that came before, reflective perhaps of a similar upsurge in interest Zuehlke sees in Remembrance Day generally.
“I’m very heartened when I go to the cenotaphs on November 11 and see all these families there with their kids; you didn’t see that 15 years ago,” he says.
Join Mark Zuehlke at Munro’s Books beginning at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 26 (doors open at 7 p.m.), to celebrate the launch of Forgotten Victory.