Spoiler alert: Robert McGill’s beautifully crafted second novel is a shape shifter. One minute it is a universal coming-of-age story full of astute character observations and sly social comment; the next, a mystery novel teeter-tottering between rural Ontario and war-torn Laos. Defying easy categorization, Once We Had a Country somehow manages to turn the struggles of a commune of well-intentioned but woefully inexperienced American draft dodgers into a novel that defines what it means to be Canadian in the most Canadian way possible—by observing Americans.
If you were, or were raised by, or even were neighbour to, an American “back-to-the-lander” anywhere in rural 1970s Canada, you will get a kick out of this book. It is all there: the youthful idealism, juvenile rebellion and near–catastrophic naiveté of the hippie era. Luckily, McGill never stoops to beads and bell-bottoms cliché. As a result, his unflinching insights into the Canadian immigrant experience, American imperialism, television’s soporific mind bath and the nature of martyrdom brilliantly illuminate a crucial turning point in our history.
The novel revolves around 24-year-old Maggie, a self-effacing, failed grade school teacher crossing the border into Canada with her first real lover, upper-crust nice boy Fletcher Morgan. Their relationship is new and neither has any farming experience, but the two have ambitious plans to convert a failing Ontario cherry orchard into a profitable farm. Fortunately, the property is owned by Morgan Sugar Company, Fletcher’s father’s corporation. Since Fletcher has dropped out of law school and daddy doesn’t want to see him drafted, Morgan Sugar will foot the bill for Fletcher and Maggie to turn the farm around. In keeping with the spirit of the times, the couple expects to do this communally with the help of Fletcher’s variously dysfunctional friends.
Not surprisingly, Fletcher eventually runs into the universal conundrum of communes: who is the boss in a “collective” owned by one person? McGill deftly follows the shift from Maggie’s initial idealism (“the idea of this place … is that we should all become good friends”) to poor Fletcher’s infuriated response to a list of petty grievances from his slacker fellow communards: “They can’t write me a complaints letter—it’s a fucking commune!”
Author Robert McGill was not born until 1976, so he must have psychically channelled his convincing cast of flawed but sympathetic characters. From rural white trash next-door neighbours to messed-up Vietnam vets, the portrait he paints is bang on. Fuelled as much by youthful rebellion as antiwar sentiment, “turn on, tune in, drop out” was the mantra of the times. (Who had heard of a mantra before that?) Flower children saw themselves as springing full-grown from Zeus’s forehead. They would start their world anew, untainted, and would never, ever repeat the mistakes of their parents’ generation. It is that childlike streak of “you can’t make me” that gives Maggie the courage to refuse to join her smothering father’s ill-conceived missionary work in Laos and instead strike out on her own mission to carve a life for herself in Canada.
One of the more delicious aspects of McGill’s novel is the way in which he portrays television as virtually a character in its own right. For the American ex-pats, it is an umbilical cord to the mother country; for Canadians, an omnipresent Greek chorus urging caution. “No wonder the people up here have their little left-wing haven with its free health care and its pacifism,” Maggie muses. “Every night they can study the States on TV and learn what not to do.”
At every stage in their lives, characters rely on television for distraction, connection and solace. The final section of the book is named after St. Clare—Maggie’s favourite childhood saint, because she is patron saint of television and watching TV together is the only way Maggie and her repressed single father Gordon relate. When eight-year-old Maggie returns home from her first communion, she finds her father in his customary chair watching television. Hoping to entice him to some day join her and Gran at church, Maggie recites her prayers to him. Gordon shushes her and, in a wonderfully loaded metaphor, “they both fall into the rapture of the screen.”
Boyfriend Fletcher turns out to be a conflicted character—kindly, but self-interested colonialism personified. He is embarrassed at having to hire Jamaican migrant worker George Ray, but “the company still expects to see something for its money,” and paying workers more than minimum wage “kind of defeats the purpose.” Maggie, on the other hand, is the quintessential Canadian heroine. She is hard working and pragmatic, crossing the border well prepared with a list of the contents of every box of goods she and Fletcher bring. She is always apologizing (at her first Catholic confession she repents for having murdered her mother by being born), and she is a fair-minded peacemaker who, even George Ray complains, never wants a fuss. Above all, she is an artist observer who shuns the limelight. From day one, she throws herself wholeheartedly into the role of commune documentarian. Hiding behind her Super 8 video camera to escape notice or blame, she fits perfectly into the long tradition of Canadian artists whose outsider perspective lets them sneak into a place of honour amidst an unsuspecting American audience.
Once We Had a Country boasts a complex, bifurcated narrative that shifts both forward and backwards in time and back and forth between Maggie’s experiences on the farm and her father’s more tragic exploits as a missionary in Laos. In an overly tidy effort to tie up these strands, McGill opts for a predictable, locked-down ending. Still, this is a novel to reckon with if only for the pleasure of McGill’s crisp prose. Consider this description of eight-year-old Maggie pitting her rival adult caregivers against each other: “she ran between her father and Gran like an electrical cord, crackling and throwing sparks, thrilling at how the things she said could make the two of them come alive.”
Once We Had a Country runs between past and present throwing its own sparks. Today, as we endure interminable waits for knee surgery and politicians whose sole platform is cutting taxes, it is painful to be reminded of the utopian Canada of 1972. That Canada may have been more racist, sexist and homophobic than today (but then, so was the rest of the world), but it was also more unionized and less class-stratified, more self-sufficient but less indifferent to the suffering of others, less chest thumping and more genuinely modest, more isolated but less frenetic. There were public health nurses and no food banks and wildlife along every country road, and you could drink from clear streams.
With the abolition of the U.S. military draft in 1973, a receding tide of American homesteaders did leave Canada “fed up with the cold winters, the lack of jobs, the complacency of this little country with its inferiority complex and its superiority complex at once.” For Maggie, and for me, and for all the other immigrants whose personalities could embrace the contradictions of Canadian culture—well, once we had a country, we were finally home.