Once We Had a Country
Set in 1972, Canadian author Robert McGill’s latest novel, Once We Had A Country, might just sneak into the definition of ‘historic fiction’ (rather than being ‘recent memory’ for some of us) but the period covered, the Vietnam War, is one of the most intriguing in the United States military’s complex history.
In the summer of 1972, Maggie Dunne, a young, idealistic trainee teacher, escapes with her boyfriend, Fletcher, to a tumbledown cherry farm in southern Ontario. Apart from Fletcher’s father’s hope of sparing him from the US draft, they also intend to set the farm up as a commune, ‘the first commune in history to be underwritten by a corporation.’
In an effort to deal with the dramatic changes affecting her life, Maggie begins to document events using a Super 8-millimetre camera given to her by her father. As she struggles with her hopes and aspirations, fear and jealousies and unfamiliar surroundings, she must also struggle with the remnants of her relationship with her father, Gordon, who has gone missing whilst carrying out missionary work in Laos. The US involvement in the Vietnam conflict had increased the strategic value of this neighbouring country, with the local Royal Lao and their controlling American generals fighting the pro-Communist forces through the hostile jungle terrain.
Robert McGill’s novel cleverly juxtaposes Maggie’s position with that of her father, imagined hardships and danger versus actual, physical danger and uncertainty at the hand of an unseen and ruthless enemy.
His use of Maggie’s 8-mm camera is also an interesting devise which allows the reader to ‘see’ as Maggie sees whilst examining the surrounding information to which she is not privy. The camera also proves to be a mixed medium, however, ultimately showing Maggie more that she realistically or idealistically might have wanted.