In the 1960s and 1970s tens of thousands of Americans slipped across the Canadian border to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. They were often the college-educated sons of middle-class families who could no longer defer being sucked into the draft, and their presence – many settled permanently – had a profound effect on shaping the little-brother nation to the north.
It is this era of idealistic draft dodgers to which readers are introduced in Once We Had a Country. Maggie, a twentysomething teacher, is fleeing to Canada with her Boston Brahmin boyfriend, Fletcher, in the summer of 1972. They intend to start a commune on an abandoned farm that Fletcher’s father’s firm has bought.
But the plan seems destined to go up in smoke. The hippies who show up aren’t the types to help turn the harvest from the cherry orchard into a cash crop. Few stick to a structured work plan, choosing instead to hang out and smoke weed. Personalities clash and tension grows.
When the draft ends, Fletcher succumbs to family pressure and returns to Boston, leaving Maggie behind. Meanwhile, her father has crossed another frontier – into Laos – and Maggie receives word that he’s disappeared.
As the book’s slow-burning plot unfolds, the suspense builds gradually. Maggie is a sympathetic character and offers an interesting perspective, but Fletcher and some of the others are predictable and their relationships aren’t fully explained.
What Robert McGill does well is to weave the historical details and subtle differences between the two countries into the narrative. Maggie and the gang can still watch Johnny Carson on television, but she’s puzzled over Canada’s jubilation at beating the USSR in an ice-hockey series. Though some of the Americans return home, disenchanted with “the complacency of this little country with its inferiority complex and superiority complex at once”, others choose to stay and turn their back on the American war machine. “No longer my country, no longer my problem,” one says.
Looking to Canada as a safe haven is nothing new; it served the same purpose for black slaves in the 1800s. So this smoothly written book does a decent job of exploring the often overlooked exodus of a historically significant era. But the conclusion, while adequate, falls slightly short of satisfying – rather like Maggie’s search for a safer place.