Great Circles: The Keith Greenaway Story
by Kathy Bergquist
Hardcover with glossy dust jacket
315 pp, 5.75 x 8.75 inches, $20.00
ArtBookbindery, Ottawa, ON, 2008
One of the more monotonous clichés of Canadian writers is that this or that person has been “forgotten.” Keith Greenaway has certainly been honoured in his lifetime – McKee Trophy (1952), admission to Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame (1974), Member, Order of Canada (1976). As much as any man, he has freed Canadians from the tyranny of Mercator maps that distort one’s perceptions of northern geography. However, his remarkable career has not been front and centre in many other venues. Indeed, the government forced obscurity upon him in 1948 when his first publication, An Aerial Reconnaissance of Arctic North America, was classified as “confidential” and confined for years to a narrow service audience. Kathy Bergquist’s biography is therefore a welcome assembly of information that ensures the perpetuation of his record.
I liked this book, in spite of its faults. Scattered throughout the text are small errors that undermine the general credibility of the work. On page 22 we read, “Germany was not allowed to manufacture motorized aircraft in the years following World War One.” The prohibition covered military aircraft, but the world’s most ubiquitous bush planes of the 1920s were Junkers W.33 and W.34 machines. In 1946, the RCAF’s Chief of the Air Staff was Air Marshal Robert Leckie, not Roy Slemon (page 78). The aircraft illustrated on page 143 is a Dakota, not a North Star. The German Condor was not a flying boat (page 307). In writing of the Second World War, the author repeats air force mythology, stating that by the late summer of 1943, Allied victory was in sight “primarily through some key successes by Bomber Command” – oblivious to events at Moscow, El Alamein, Stalingrad, Tunisia and Kursk where Bomber Command was scarcely a factor, much less a primary one.
The quality of photo reproduction ranges from indifferent to terrible, especially with several pictures that are not much bigger than a postage stamp. The book designer should have chosen fewer images, then reproduced them in a larger format. The most striking defect of the book is the index – or what would better be described as an apology for an index. There are many persons and subjects mentioned in the text that do not make it into the index – the Lancaster Aries, Operation Muskox, Doctor J.J. Green, Curtis LeMay, Sulaiman bin Sujak, to name only a few.
That said, Great Circles has a story to tell. It may not have been necessary to go back to 1800 in exploring Greenaway’s family roots, but his boyhood story is touching and nostalgic for anyone ever raised within smelling distance of a farm. The narrative runs through successive military and civilian careers (the man kept “retiring” from one job, only to jump into another), including that of conducting northern tours for foreign diplomats which continued until 1999, when he was 83.
Pilots are most often the focus of aerial narratives; as a navigational expert, Greenaway was always going to be spectator, planner, participant, but seldom the central character in any of the events described. Indeed, during his service in Malaysia, tutoring the first Chief of the Air Staff for that nation, his aim was to make himself invisible, so as to encourage that individual (Sulaiman bin Sujak) and to direct civilian attention to him rather than the advisor. The pages dealing with this portion of Greenaway’s career say much about the man and just as much about Canada’s ability to make unique, even niche, contributions in international affairs.
Earlier, Greenaway had intimate dealings with the USAF, from high-latitude B-29 flights in 1946 through to advising the Strategic Air Command (SAC) on navigational matters. His insider’s look at SAC culture is revealing and disturbing. The intensity and professionalism of the command were exhilarating, but some exercises – which sent dozens of bombers to the very fringes of Soviet airspace – he deemed to be “unnecessarily risky and provocative.”
Kathy Bergquist has a nice turn of phrase. The struggle between authors and editors is described and encapsulated between pages 130 and 132; anyone who has gone through the process (at either end) will recognize the nature of the conflict. A wartime example of “information explosion” (in this case, absorbing massive and sometimes contradictory reports from overseas) is described as “like trying to single out and capture individual snowflakes in a blizzard” (page 60). Trusting the advice of specialized experts (like computer IT support staff) elicits a particularly apt comparison:
In the same way that one must take on faith the word of the ultrasound technician who points to the monitor and confidently declares that you’re looking at a perfectly healthy heart valve, so the untrained or unimaginative person would have to take on faith the assertion that an image from the radarscope is of an ice covered inlet adjacent to a plain dotted with ice covered lakes.
Only 200 copies of Great Circles were printed, so one should not delay ordering. It is available for $20.00 plus postage from the author (1231 Collins Avenue, Ottawa, ON K1V 6C9) or from www.canavbooks.com for $30.00. It can also be purchased through Arctic Ventures in Iqaluit.
~reviewed by Hugh A. Halliday