Maggie’s war is a narrative of cameras

A believable central character sustains this lively novel about draft dodgers in the 1960s

An anti-Vietnam war draft protest in 1967. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

An anti-Vietnam war draft protest in 1967. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Fri, Jan 3, 2014, 14:56


Book Title:
Once We Had a Country


Robert McGill


Guideline Price:

Few novels would appear to be as straightforward as Canadian Robert McGill’s doggedly-crafted yet lively second novel. And to a point, it succeeds in actually being that simple. It’s briskly plot-driven, even episodic, with the author setting out various narrative signposts to first arrive at and then move on from, as if establishing various little camps, ever inching towards a finishing line that eventually seems very open-ended. It is also as dense as only a good old-fashioned narrative can be.

The story, interestingly, relies almost completely on the various moods – not to mind the adventures – of a large cast of characters, some of whom are well-drawn, others mere cartoon creations. McGill enjoys writing dialogue and this is a novel of half-finished conversations, retorts, yearnings and some petulance. Above all, it is about the mistakes people tend to make and the pauses they then take while considering these errors before setting off to make some more.

It is an unpretentious, old-fashioned novel, and that is not meant as criticism, only an observation. Once We Had A Country, billed rather clumsily by the publishers as a re-imagining of the impact the Vietnam War had on the lives of the American draft dodgers and their wives and girlfriends, fails to confront the subject in any meaningful way.

Ironically, considering there is an important storyline that actually takes place in Vietnam running parallel to the central action, there is little real sense of the period. What does come through in an effectively understated way is the niggling unease that existed between Canada and the US at that time – and that to some extent persists.

McGill does not overplay it, and this makes it all the more convincing. At the heart of it all is neither Vietnam nor Canada, but Maggie, a young woman who realises that she is not a good teacher and who, having fled her father’s obsessive attentions, has thrown in her lot with a ridiculous boyfriend, Fletcher. He wants to avoid the draft and can do so courtesy of one of his wealthy father’s crazy projects, a sugar company to be run from Canada.

McGill writes a plain, unaffected prose that seldom strains for literary effect. There are no passages of lyrical beauty, few breathtaking images; instead he reaches for the human response, the chill moment of pained self-recognition, usually hot on the heels of delusion.

He could as easily have written this novel in a vaguely ironic first-person voice. It is never funny, yet it sustains a consistently light touch, at least in the Canadian sequences. The humans are often idiotically real, or at least their behaviour tends to be.

In marked contrast, to the extent that they seem almost to be part of another novel, the jungle interludes are tense, almost dream-like and disappointingly underdeveloped considering the amount of space McGill allows for the Canadian sequences.

Another writer, or more probably an American, would have treated the subject very differently and with far more pathos and anger. But McGill is Canadian, which perhaps explains his approach. One can only imagine how Russell Banks would have handled the same theme.

“Everything will be fine because they don’t have anything to hide. That’s what Fletcher has told her as they wait in line at the border. When he finally steers the camper van up to the booth, though, Maggie notices his hands trembling. The uniform of the guard is dark at the armpits, and the man looks miserable in the heat.”

It is worth pointing out that Maggie notices how the weather is affecting the guard’s uniform before she considers how the man wearing it is feeling. Maggie is like that. She thinks all the time, replaying it all in her head; taking action proves far more difficult for her.

The scene at the border is well done and sufficiently edgy. But McGill then begins to lighten the mood. Instead of watching committed idealists deciding to voice their disapproval of the war, he presents us with some hippies looking for an easy alternative.

Big subjects drift along on the sidelines as Maggie braces herself for fear that the other woman, Brid, who is joining them, may also be involved with Fletcher. Brid arrives with her little daughter in tow and is seething; Wale, the father of her child, appears to be half-hearted about everything, from serving in the army, to being her partner, to having fathered a child who owes her existence to, as he brutally puts it, a faulty condom.

Life in the new commune begins with cleaning the house, which is attractive if filthy and bears the signs of having been ransacked. The dense pages are heavy with detail, and the summer heat, as well as being full of talk, mostly banter. Brid is given a sharp tongue and some of the more barbed lines. The narrative tone evokes a world of flower power in transition.

Narrative powers along
None of the characters, with the exception of the all-too-human Maggie, are particularly likeable. Yet the narrative powers along like a ferry packed with passengers all shouting at the top of their voices. But McGill manages to keep his chattering characters on the controlled side of chaos. His very restrained novel reads as a clever screenplay-in-the-making and in time this good novel could be made into an even better movie.

Quiet Maggie is full of doubts, including some about her estrangement from her widowed father who had loved her younger self to the point of suffocating her. (There is a very impressive scene in which Maggie, having secretly prepared for her prom night, while ready and waiting for her escort’s arrival, decides not to go.) She takes to making home movies. Silently she wanders about, filming everything, causing the reader to fear that Maggie may be crazier than we suspected.

Her film-making is a clever narrative device which also plays its part in Fletcher deciding to leave the commune. There is another reason, though – the draft has ended. Increasingly the novel becomes Maggie’s story with the wily use of red herrings.

In addition to her all-seeing camera, there is the prominence of the TV set throughout the action. Maggie spends hours alone in the evening watching everything and when the soaps are over, “she resorts to watching a hockey game . . . the Canadians are playing the Russians in Moscow, the last game in a series she hasn’t been watching . . . When one of the Canadian players scores, there’s jubilation among his teammates, but Maggie isn’t really paying attention to them; her eyes are on the thousands of Russians in the stands . . . the few times the camera shows them, their faces are unblinking and forlorn. They have the look of children at Christmas who were promised one thing and given another.” It is one of the few vivid images in a novel that tends towards unadorned description.

Fact is all; even when McGill appears to be considering ambivalence, he chooses fact. It is a narrative of cameras. Maggie believes she has discovered the man her father was after seeing him in a documentary made following his death. (That part is implausible, as is her father’s born-again campaign which results in his death.)

The narrative does flounder in the closing pages as McGill hurriedly attempts to tie up too many loose ends. The most obvious weakness is the inclusion of a Czech priest, complete with his wayward sibling, a sister, both of whom appear to have wandered in from a different novel. Readers of McGill’s debut, The Mysteries (2004), may have been expecting a more cohesive work.

Once We Had A Country is far from perfect and frequently top-heavy, yet it is an engaging yarn which is almost, if not quite, held together, by Maggie, a bit of a dreamer, a bit of a busybody, but a very believable human who is intent on her life becoming that bit better.