Carefully considering who we are and who we follow | Review of “Once We Had A Country” by Robert McGill (2013) Alfred A. Knopf

A good piece of literature makes us look at our friends and our ideals and question them. Just who we are and what we believe should be looked at by ourselves once in a while. And that is what Robert McGill has done through his protagonists in his novel Once We Had A Country. It is a stunning and complex book that boldly reflects the human condition.

Page 20-21

“Get your old man a beer?” he says.

Without a word , she jumps down runs for the fridge.  Today, as she received Communion, she was made to understand that something had changed forever. It seems this ritual will remain, though Maggie bringing him beer and changing the channel when he asks. Sometimes she would prefer a book, but her father never reads. He says books only tell you about the past; it’s TV that keeps you up to date. Side by side each evening he and Maggie sit before the set, eating their dinners from foil compartments on trays. When they visit Gran next door, she makes wry comments about scurvy and the Children’s aid, and then Maggie’s father buys apples or grapes that sit on the counter gathering dust until the house grows lousy with fruit flies. There are times when Maggie herself wishes for some kind of change in their routine – a friend to stay over, dinner at a restaurant – but her father appears content, though he has no hobbies and doesn’t travel, hardly leaves the Syracuse city limits. He never complains about clerking at the Public Works Department. It seems he wants nothing beyond the silent hours of Maggie’s company in the living room, and the worst way in which she could betray him would be to ask more herself. Sitting with him in his easy chair, she puts the veil back on and flips it side to side, watching the television grow clear and shrouded by turns.

It wasn’t until her childhood was over that she realized she’d been desperate to get out. Her father must have sensed it sooner, the way he turned against her once she got to college. Then she spent half her money on long-distance calls from Boston, close to tears, trying to make him understand without saying it outright that he didn’t want the same things he did. Except now he’s in Laos, and what the hell does she know about what he wants? Maybe if she understood his desire she wouldn’t be so angry with him.

The story starts in the summer of 1972. A group of young disillusioned people move from the political turbulent United States to start a cherry-orchard operation in Canada. But all is not ideal within the new commune. Friendships fray, ideals are questioned while the trees need attention. Maybe starting anew wasn’t such a good idea.

Page 148-149

Maggie thinks of telling Fletcher about her encounter with Wale in the playroom but decides he already has enough to manage. Each day seems to bring him into conflict with people on the farm. Those on the payroll begrudge the chores he assigns them, while those who aren’t being paid don’t bother with his labour schemes at all and entice the others to movie matinees in St. Catharines or the beach at Port Dalhousie. In bed he complains to her that Dimitri’s the main culprit, setting a bad example with his truant walks in search of (pet cat). Fletcher complains about the garbage everywhere, the mud on the floors, the noise from the record players and car stereos, the shouting and laughing downstairs that make it hard to sleep, until he and Maggie end up arguing over which of them should go tell people to be quiet. In the mornings, there are often bodies asleep in the hall, and many residents of the barracks don’t get up until noon. Fletcher starts going out to the building before breakfast, rapping on the doors and hollering hellos, poking people awake.

His shortwave radio goes missing, then his welding torch. She tells him not to take it personally, but it’s no good. At meetings, he battles with Dimitri, who hasn’t lost interest in debating. While fletcher sits with pens and sheaves of notes laid out on the coffee table like weapons, Dimitri take equine strides around the room and sweeps the hair from his forehead. He wants a credit system to apportion the work more fairly. Fletcher wants to ban drugs and set a nightly curfew. The number of Fletcher’s supporters shrinks with each meeting, and half-jokingly Dimitri takes to calling him Captain Morgan. Brid, whose vote cannot be depended upon by either man, rolls her eyes a lot. It makes for compelling film but is hard on Fletcher’s nerves. He vents his anger watching TV coverage of the Republican convention. One night Maggie catches him before the bathroom mirror speaking to invisible assailants.

“Get lost,” he says. “Why can’t you leave me alone?”

While it is a complex story, Once We Had A Country by Robert McGill is a brilliant book. Not one to be taken lightly but should be critically thought through while read.

Link to Robert McGill’s website

Link to Random House Canada’s page for Once We Had A Country

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