Book Review– Exceptional Circumstances: A Novel

Exceptional Circumstances by James Bartleman

Exceptional Circumstances: A Novel by James Bartleman is a fictional account of a Canadian diplomat. Bartleman has an impressive career in the Canadian foreign service: High Commissioner to Cyprus, South Africa, Australia and Ambassador to Israel, NATO, and the EU. He also served as director of security and intelligence for the Department of External Affairs. Bartleman also served as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and initiated the Lieutenant Governor’s Book Program in 2004 which collection over 1.2 million books to help fill school libraries in First Nation communities. He has authored six other books both fiction and nonfiction.

The story centers around Luc Cadotte a Métis boy who through a series of events and a caring, although culturally naive, teacher is persuaded to attend college and apply for the foreign service. Bartleman explains the history and plight of the Métis people. Cadotte graduates from college and applies at the Department of External Affairs in the late 1960s. He manages a perfect score on the written exam which earns him a spot at the oral exams. He is questioned intensely, particularly in the idea of when it is proper to break laws and social conventions such as, torture. How many lives are needed to balance that scale? Cadotte, a Catholic, is reluctant to commit but agrees at a certain point the balance tips. What is more important justice of family (country)? Theodore Longshaft asks bringing a Camus quote into the debate. Longshaft is chairman of the committee and the Director General of Security and Intelligence. He is well known as a Cold War Warrior and easily recognized as a realist. Balancing out the committee is Burump the Director General of the Bureau of the United Nations and Global Affairs. He is the softer figure and seems to play the role of the liberal theory, opposed to the realist.

Cadotte surprises the committee and the reader with his actions and then the reader is surprised with the actions of Longshaft and Burump. This places doubt in the mind of Cadotte as to if he is valuable because of who he is or if it is just because what he is, a minority. This theme will play several times in the book. Cadotte’s work overseas involves investigating foreign support for the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ). The FLQ is seen as a threat to Canadian security. Although not violent yet, it is growing in popularity. An independent Marxist Quebec is not in the general interest of Canada or the United States. The United States involves itself in the matter in more ways than one. One involves Cadotte personally.

The novel can be divided into three sections. The first deals with Cadotte as a youth. The second deals with his role in the Canadian foreign service. The third, and the reason I chose this book, involves Cadotte in the October Crisis. The events of the October Crisis tie directly back to the interview a few years ago and what is considered exceptional circumstances. This is a dilemma for Cadotte who is a good and well meaning person. He faces hard choices and decisions that he will have to live with his whole life. When nations make deals the costs are high and their “official policies” do not always apply, sometimes they are completely abandoned.

Bartleman writes and excellent “spy novel” tempered in the realism of the time, situation, and politics. Class, minorities, justice, and cold war politics all shape this novel. There is not so much a battle between good and evil as it is a battle between varying shades of gray. Bartleman captures the essence of foreign affairs in foreign affairs balancing national interest with justice, law, and morals. An exciting action novel in places and a thought provoking novel throughout. The October Crisis and the FLQ make an interesting comparison to today’s terrorism problem. A timely lesson in historical fiction.

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