Plenty of range
Dialogue, details divine in Sweatman’s Vietnam War-era novel
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/05/2022 (386 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Do not let its title deceive you. This is not a novel set in the 19th century; it is an indictment of the contemporary arms industry and of Canada’s role in the Vietnam War.
Margaret Sweatman’s historical novels have a reputation for their originality and their diverse, well-developed characters. They have spanned from the early fur trade (The Players) to the Winnipeg General Strike (Fox) to the Cold War (Mr. Jones). She has won a number of awards, including the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, the latter twice.
This novel opens in the summer of 1971 on an island 40 kilometres from Minaki, where Kal Welsh, his wife Ruby and daughter Lilac live in relative isolation year round. We learn that Kal, an American, was once a professor of social psychology in Winnipeg.
The family’s retreat to the wilderness happened after Kal was wounded while serving as a psy-ops (propaganda) adviser in Vietnam. Since then he has established his reputation as a gunsmith with a hunting rifle called the Welsh 70, and he is now testing the Welsh Stalker, a powerful assault rifle that he believes will outdo the AK-47.
An unexpected visit from Gavin, a young man interested in meeting Kal, reveals the family dynamics in just a few pages: Kal’s immense ego and ambition, Ruby’s anger and Lilac’s increasing discomfort with her father’s profession and need for control. When Gavin calls her father a hero, she wonders if he’s “a bit slow in the head… she knew that real life wasn’t heroic. It was soldiers shooting students dead at a university in Ohio,” referencing the 1970 Kent State shootings.
Events move rapidly in the early pages of this novel, and some of them aren’t very likely. Lilac, aged 18, leaves for Winnipeg with Gavin, who is on his way to Grand Forks to enlist. Soon she lands a job as reporter with the Winnipeg Tribune. A few months later, bored with writing articles on women’s groups, she proposes doing a story on Gavin (one of an estimated 10,000 Canadians who fought in Vietnam) and is sent off to cover the war.
Once The Gunsmith’s Daughter shifts to the heat of Saigon, where Lilac is more a bewildered observer than an actor, the story becomes a page turner. Sweatman has done her research on this period of the Viet Cong’s advance south, and she has created some memorable scenes and characters.
Eventually we meet a very changed Gavin who now has “a businesslike attitude towards his own body, as if it was gear he had to carry around.” But the story doesn’t centre on Gavin and Lilac and their brief affair. It focuses on Lilac’s relationship with her father Kal who, after a few months, follows her to Vietnam.
And what a complex relationship they have. Lilac’s rebellion against her father’s control and way of life is matched by her instinct to protect him, while Kal is so bent on marketing his Stalker that he is blind to the needs of others — including his own daughter.
Throughout the novel, dialogue sparkles with authenticity and wit comparable to the novels of Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Bothers, French Exit). Sweatman’s unpredictable but convincing snippets of conversation go a long a long way in revealing the characters and their relationships, particularly the complex relationship between Lilac and her father.
The Gunsmith’s Daughter is not as seamless as Sweatman’s last novel, Mr. Jones, but once again she breaks new ground.
Faith Johnston is a Winnipeg writer.
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