While the facts of any era are numerous, complicated, and diverse, pop-cultural memory tends to compress them, reducing whole decades to shorthand, a thin file of static images. Pop culture tends to reduce whole decades to shorthand, a thin file of static images. Resting at the height of the Pax Americana, the 1950s are rendered as Cold War anxiety, poodle-skirted innocence, or Pleasantville repression. The sixties, meanwhile, shrink to long-haired protesters, coastal Be-Ins, or avariciousMad Men playboys in skinny ties watching a moon launch.
Draft-dodgers, idealistic commune-builders and the far-off wars against communism in Southeast Asia circa 1972 are the familiar historical building blocks of Once We Had a Country, Robert McGill’s intriguing follow-up to The Mysteries (2004), the University of Toronto professor’s playful and clever sketch of small-town living.
To his credit (and for the grateful reader’s benefit), McGill resists that shorthand of period Kumbaya cliches in Country, subtly weaving the politics, trends and lingo of the era into an immersive and harrowing tale of people finding their way, but he spritzes it, too, with episodes of arch humour.
And in place of his debut’s love-it-or-like-it density and self-reflexiveness, McGill opts for an easier-going narration, dedicating the bulk of his effortless storytelling to answering a question: What happens when two disillusioned young Americans who are romantically bonded in a six-month relationship hurriedly pack a van and cross the border to begin an egalitarian habitat of like-minded peaceniks at a run-down cherry farm (200 acres and owned by the company of one of their fathers) in Ontario’s Niagara Region, despite knowing practically nothing about Canada, agricultural production or community building?
McGill could have opted for excoriating satire at the Americans’ expense: An opening scene in which sadistic Canadian border guards rip the literal stuffing out the Fletcher Morgan’s van seats suggests that possibility.
But he steers away from easy targets and cynical dismissals, examining Fletcher and Maggie Dunne’s earnestness and naiveté thoughtfully. They’re misguided but we feel for them. The seemingly inevitable collapse of their social experiment, then, resonates deeply in part because their realhopes are so out of proportion to their actual abilities.
Though they’re reacting to the ascendant militarism of the American state, Fletcher and Maggie are also fleeing the mire of their current adulthoods: His affluent father in Boston (who owns the 200-acre orchard) is grooming an heir and she’s glad to see in the rear-view mirror an ill-suited career as a elementary school teacher, a melancholic, needy, and distant father (the death of his wife during childbirth a “scabless wound”) who has lately found religion and embraced missionary work in Laos, and (right next door to him in Syracuse)a pious grandmother from the overbearing and judgmental school of family management.
Border-crossing, Ontario, and overgrown Harroway Orchards aren’t the beginning Maggie imagines, though, and neither, ultimately, is the commune.
Besides colossal inexperience, the duo has to contend with the commune’s founding citizenry. A motley cast of characters, including an abrasive activist and her daughter, a Jamaican farm labourer and a lazy and quarrelsome couple of latecomers turn the commune into a war zone in the making, with ideological differences and territorial disputes rearing up when the group’s not staring at American news on TV.
Brid, an abrasive veteran of protests, co-ops, and bad relationships, arrives first with her strange daughter. Then there’s George Ray, the kindly farm labourer from Jamaica working in Canada on a government program who lives in the barracks behind the farm’s shabby house, and Wale, the occasional boyfriend of Brid, a jaded, seen-it-all veteran (Vietnam was, he says, “a good gig, all right.
For the most of the guys it’s their first time out of the States. They get to Saigon and suddenly they’re in this whole other world with banana palms and two-buck whores. Lots of them think that with the nice weather, the drugs, and the easy pussy, they’ll just stay there to open a hotel once their tour’s done”). Once lazy, provoking, and quarrelsome Dimitri and Rhea pull up two months later, the commune is a war zone in the making, with ideological differences, personality clashes, and territorial disputes rearing up when the group’s not staring at American news on TV.
Canadian neighbours are no help either. They’re coldhearted, or else suspicious of interlopers they perceive as American draft dodgers and dirty hippies.
When a house party turns messy and communal ties begin to erode, McGill shifts greater focus to Maggie, who hides shyness and uncertainty behind the lens of the Super-8 camera she lugs around. Brief and riveting scenes of her father’s disastrous soul-saving in Laos dovetail with her (and the farm’s) eventual fate.
With his alluring glimpse of a not-that-distant past, McGill invites readers to enjoy the pleasures of his undoubted story-spinner talents. Along the way, they can catch instructive glimpses of an era they thought they knew, or perhaps be reminded of the mood and nuance of a time they lived through whose concrete details may have drifted from memory.
Brett Josef Grubisic teaches at the University of British Columbia. This Location of Unknown Possibilities, his second novel, will be published next spring.