Robillard Contemplates War's Damages
What really happens when a naive young soldier goes to war?
That's what Leo Brent Robillard wanted to explore in writing his third novel, Drift, about two boys from the Canadian prairies who join the army to fight in the Second Boer War in South Africa in 1899-1900.
"It doesn't matter why a soldier goes to war, but what happens to him in war," Robillard said in an interview this week. He teaches English, writing and international studies at Thousand Islands Secondary School.
Fired up by patriotic stories in the Canadian newspapers, Mason Black wants to win glory on the battlefield. His friend Will Regan, the novel's main character, is more introspective and far less certain of his goals, so he merely drifts along.
For long weeks, they move across the veldt with the Winnipeg Rifles' "A" Company, whipped by sand storms, beaten down by high temperatures, marching and drilling endlessly, but seeing no action.
When Will fights in his first battle, his training overcomes his reluctance to kill and he shows himself to be what his superiors would call a good soldier.
Robillard has never fought in war, but he paints a convincing picture of the noise, blood, dust, confusion and terror of battle.
While Will does his duty, he questions the morality of the war. It's hard for him to see the retreating Boer farmers as the enemy, and yet in battle he kills.
Who is the enemy, really, Robillard seems to ask.
"Evil is everywhere, in all of us. You want to think of it as good guys and bad guys, but I want to show the damages wrought by us, not just by them."
Will encounters evil in a fellow soldier, Kadinsky, a sadist and ex-convict, who ties up a young black boy and beats and abuses him for sport. Threatened with injury or worse by Kadinsky if he reports the incident, Will faces another decision in his moral growth.
If this incident reminds some of a certain dark moment in Canadian military history during the war in Somalia, that was Robillard's intention.
He had finished the first draft of the novel in 2008.
"When Canada became involved in the war in Afghanistan, the novel was even more relevant."
The Boer War was another example of Canada's participation in a small foreign war.
Today, Robillard says, our involvement in the Boer War is considered "politically incorrect" and there was no effort in 1999 to commemorate the centennial of the war.
Whether the British went to war to fight the Boers for enslaving the Africans or whether they sought the rich diamond mines in Boer control is not the issue in Drift.
Other characters change as they confront the boredom and horror of war: Mason, who thinks he can do something that matters by being a soldier; Claire, the Australian nurse escaping her parents' control, who provides the novel's love interest; Barrett, a pretentious war correspondent, who spouts patriotic platitudes and provides some comic relief; Robert, an anthropologist (mentioned in Robillard's first novel, Leaving Wyoming) who seems an enigma to Will; Campbell, the reconnaissance balloonist whose mixed-race family moves with the soldiers.
Robillard's powers of description are poetic, while his action is tight, forceful, compelling. In Will he has created a sympathetic character who matures into a man in just a few short months.
The result is a poignant story of war's reality and what it does to people.
Robillard enjoys writing about people living through changing times. He is working on a novel, tentatively titled Walking Iron, about Mohawks and the Great Depression.
He believes we are going into another major transition period.
"Poverty moves me. The imbalance in the world bothers me."
He and his wife have taken student groups to Nicaragua for four years now. They are always struck by the poverty, illness and other challenges the people face.
"Yet in the evening, they sit around and laugh."
It's made him think about what's really important in life, to think about downsizing and living more simply.
"We are over-entertained," he said, wishing people could turn off their electronic devices, take a walk in the woods and just think.
He's also writing a book, now titled Company of Water, about a couple who lose their daughter and how they cope with this unfathomable loss.
"I call it a claustrophobic story, in that it deals with what's really important."
When something happens to your family, you discover that's more important than anything else in life. Everything else that seemed to matter falls away, as if it doesn't exist.
Unlike his other novels with their historical settings and the research that goes with them, Company of Water is based on a 35-second scare when Robillard thought his daughter was lost at a beach. The novel will be an intimate, personal account of terrible loss, and Robillard wants to be sure he's "got it right."
Robillard hopes to be invited to read from Drift at writers' festivals in the region next year.
He had a receptive audience at the country club in Bath, where his reading from the novel led to a great number of questions and discussion.
Drift is published by Turnstone Press, in Winnipeg, and is available in local bookstores. His other novels are Leaving Wyoming and Houdini's Shadow.
Recorder and Times
"Leo Brent Robillard's The Road to Atlantis is a poignant, resonant tale of a family's dissolution following the death of their daughter. In gorgeous, gripping prose, he explores how individuals cope with tragedy and how grief sifts through the generations until it can finally settle and heal. This is a novel that echoes with human emotion and meaning and that deserves to be read."
-- Lauren Carter, author of Swarm
-- Lauren Carter, author of Swarm