“Many Rivers to Cross”: A Review of Robert McGill’s Once We Had a Country

by Andrew Blackman

Andrew Blackman is a fiction writer living in Crete. He’s had two novels published in the UK: A Virtual Love and On the Holloway Road. He’s also written extensively for magazines and newspapers, and blogs about writing and books at www.andrewblackman.net.

Once We Had a Country
Knopf Canada
1 Toronto Street, Unit 300
Toronto, ON M5C 2V6
knopfpublicity@randomhouse.com

2013, 416 pp., $24.95, ISBN: 978.0.30736.120.2

 

When you cross a border into a new country, you become someone else. You leave behind the identity you had at home, and suddenly your passport is your only anchor to the past; everything else is up for grabs.

Border crossings feature heavily in Robert McGill’s latest novel, Once We Had A Country, which is set on a cherry farm near the small Ontario border town of Virgil in the early 1970s. Most of the characters are making conscious efforts to reimagine themselves, heading north to escape the Vietnam draft, Nixon, violence, disappointment and, in some cases, the heavy weight of family expectation. Canada is a blank sheet of paper on which to sketch their utopian vision of communal living and collective farming.

Like many utopias, this one is grounded not so much in the future as in the past. The participants are trying to recapture a simpler and purer way of life, an alternative America in which power and wealth are distributed fairly. Whether or not this America ever really existed is a moot point. Things at home have gone down the wrong path, and rural Canada offers a chance to start over and get it right. Here’s Fletcher, the founder of the commune, recording his thoughts for the benefit of his girlfriend Maggie’s home movie:

“America’s too far gone to save,” he says. “The land’s polluted and the politicians are corrupt. They send the army to slaughter kids halfway around the world, then order up the National Guard when people protest. In this country we’ll do things differently … It’ll be a life we could never have in Boston. We’ll be a model for everyone.”

But what of Canada itself? Does it really offer anything substantially different? The initial signs are not promising. McGill chooses to open the book with a quotation from George Grant’s 1965 polemic Lament for a Nation: “They were reaching out their arms in love for the far shore.” Grant’s lament was for a Canada whose uniqueness was being eroded by U.S. cultural, economic, and military influence. The irony is that the nation whose loss Grant lamented was defined largely by the sort of rural, local communities of mutual aid that the young American draft-dodgers are trying to recreate.

“Canada was just a game, a way of dodging the draft and freeloading for a few months.”

Maggie and Fletcher are rejecting the relentless focus on empire, capitalism, and technology that Grant saw as defining the U.S., and instead reaching for something more localized, based on cooperation rather than individualism. If these were characteristics that once defined Canada, then Grant tells us they were already gone in 1965, and they have certainly disappeared by the time of Once We Had a Country. The refugees from the U.S. reach the far shore of the Niagara River, but find it barren.

The references to the border itself constantly reinforce the impression that there’s not much separating Canada from the United States. After the border crossing, Maggie feels deflated as they drive into their new country:

It isn’t the beginning she’d imagined. She thought crossing over would feel exhilarating. She imagined they might enter at Niagara Falls … Today, when she woke up in the passenger seat and realized Fletcher had opted for the Lewiston bridge instead, she couldn’t help feeling disappointed.

The other characters also diminish the border. Fletcher’s friend Brid says the border guards were “so polite, it was like I was doing them a favour by entering the country.” Her boyfriend Wale, a deserter from the U.S. army, swims across the Niagara River into Canada, marvelling later at the ease of it: “I’ve crossed some borders in my time, and this was no border.”

Later on, when Maggie is tiring of life on the farm, she drives to Niagara-on-the-Lake, looking across at the American fort on the far side of the river. “Incredible how close it is. She could return so easily. Just a few miles’ drive to the nearest bridge, and she could be in Boston by nightfall.”

It’s not only the physical border that’s close. Even the television is dominated by American news, whether they watch the local channel or the ones from Buffalo. McGill’s implication in these repeated references is clear. The border between the U.S. and Canada, whether physical or cultural, is slim, fragile, and porous. Once we had a country, but now it barely exists as a separate entity, at least in this Ontario border community.

Although the novel minimizes any sense of substantive differences between the two nations, it does show plenty of surface ones. There’s a palpable hostility from local people toward the commune members.

“The 49th parallel is just one border.”

Some of it is because they are hippies and dropouts, but much of it is specifically targeted at them as Americans. Their neighbour overcharges them for fixing their gas leak, and then says, “Hippies” with a shake of his head. “Bet you’re Americans too.” His daughter abuses Maggie as she walks past. A Labour Day party on the farm with everyone from the town invited is a tense, awkward affair. Later on, graffiti appears on the garden wall: “Yankees go home.” This supports Grant’s assertion that the nation is already something to be lamented. Vigorous assertion of national identity, after all, is often a symptom of its loss. As Lao Tzu observed 2,000 years ago, “When the country falls into chaos, patriotism is born.”

The nostalgia for a lost nation is palpable, but the title can also be read in another way. The Americans who arrive at the farm are also nostalgic for what they believe the U.S. might once have been. Even its ugly reality is something they’re unable to break from completely; they talk incessantly about home, and huddle around the television to catch the latest news of Nixon’s re-election campaign. Gradually, they drift away, with even Fletcher himself returning to Boston when the summer’s over and the threat of the draft has receded with Nixon’s announcement that draftees won’t be sent to Vietnam. Maggie realises that for the others, Canada was just a game, a way of dodging the draft and freeloading for a few months. She was the only one who really saw it as something else, as an opportunity to live a less competitive life and to create a community built on fairness and mutual aid.

The 49th parallel is just one border. Once We Had a Country expands beyond the U.S. and Canada to include the events in Southeast Asia that shaped the politics of the era. Maggie’s father goes to Laos as a missionary, and in some of the early chapters we read about his frantic attempts to save a Hmong man, Yia Pao, and his baby son. Toward the end of the book, Yia Pao arrives in Canada: another border crossing, another fresh start, another person lamenting a lost nation. And there’s George Ray, a migrant worker hired to help on the farm. He thinks frequently of Jamaica, of his life there and the marriage falling apart in his absence.

Maggie establishes a tentative friendship with a couple of other misfits: a Catholic priest from Czechoslovakia and his lonely, alcoholic sister. They seem perpetually lost, so far away from home, their church always empty and suffering from a leaky roof, worshippers so rare that when Maggie first goes inside, the priest assumes she is stealing. Like the others, the priest and his sister have come to Canada for their own reasons, but can’t shake the memory that once they had a country, too.

There are other borders even more remote than Laos and Czechoslovakia. The crossing of a border, after all, is a kind of preparation for the crossing of the ultimate border between life and death. McGill’s quote from Grant’s Lament for a Nation is itself taken from Virgil’s Aeneid. The border this time is the river of lamentation in the Underworld, and the ones reaching out their arms in love for the far shore are lost souls who are unable to cross because they were not given proper burial rites, such as having coins placed in their mouths to give to the ferryman, Charon. They are condemned to wander for a hundred years, within sight of the far shore, but unable to reach it. The “love” (amore) of the Latin can also be translated as “longing.”

Maggie’s father seems to be one of these lost souls already. He was destroyed by the death of his young wife, and became so reliant on his daughter that he tried to stop her going off to college in Boston. He not only goes to Laos in the middle of a massive U.S. bombing campaign and a brutal civil war, but actively seeks out danger once he’s there, snatching Yia Pao’s baby from under the noses of armed men, ignoring a priest’s advice to stay at the mission, and seeming to seek death at every opportunity. No wonder the priest says to him, “You wish to give yourself to God.”

To add another layer to the religious overtones, McGill quotes from St. Augustine: “‘Then what,’ said the youth, ‘are the eyes with which you see me?’” It’s from Letter 159, written in 415 CE and widely used in later centuries as proof of the existence of the soul. Augustine is telling the story of a physician called Gennadius who has a recurring dream in which a young man leads him to a city and starts talking to him. In one of the dreams, the young man asks Gennadius how it is possible for him to see everything he sees in the dream. Since his eyes are closed, Gennadius realizes he must be seeing through the eyes of the soul. The soul, then, must be separate from the body, and so the death of the body is not the ultimate death; the soul continues into an afterlife.

“They are condemned to wander for a hundred years, within sight of the far shore, but unable to reach it.”

Although the book explores borders both physical and metaphysical, it is still the one between Canada and the U.S. that dominates. McGill could have referred directly to Virgil in his quotation, but chose instead to direct us to Grant, only hinting obliquely at the Virgil connection through the naming of the town in which the novel is set. Referring to Grant’s Lament for a Nation brings up a multitude of associations about Canada’s loss of identity in the face of U.S. influence.

The novel asks questions about this loss of identity and whether it’s reversible, and the apparent answers are quite bleak. By the end of the novel, the farmhouse is burnt down, the cherry orchards in disarray. Maggie and her new multi-cultural cast of farm workers make a commitment to rebuild, but the task seems overwhelming. There is some hope, but it is tentative, delicate, overshadowed by the memory of what was lost. It may be too simplistic to read the farm as a direct metaphor for the fate of Canadian national identity, but McGill’s choice of title and quotations invites comparisons.

This is a novel which encourages us to think for ourselves about the nature of the arbitrary lines drawn on maps by long-dead politicians, as well as the more tangible, sharply-drawn line between this world and whatever lies beyond. While we’re doing that, we can derive plenty of pleasure from the powerful, sad, and touching story of a young woman trying to make her way in a foreign land. It’s impossible not to root for Maggie as she battles hostile neighbours, destructive housemates, storms, fire, injury, grief and betrayal, displaying through it all a stubborn commitment to endure. The novel perhaps ends up defying Grant and suggesting that a unique Canadian identity can indeed be found, by returning to what Margaret Atwood once described as the central theme of Canadian literature: survival.


Andrew Blackman is a fiction writer living in Crete. He’s had two novels published in the UK: A Virtual Love and On the Holloway Road. He’s also written extensively for magazines and newspapers, and blogs about writing and books at www.andrewblackman.net.

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