October 18, 2008
A Vietnam Draft Resister's Life in the Canadian Bush
By Mark Frutkin
Dundurn, 237 pages, $24.95
Ottawa novelist Mark Frutkin has long been interested in history's
turning points, moments in time when a person's life and that of a
nation intersect. His first book, The Growing Dawn (1984), included
four works of "documentary fiction" about the life of Guglielmo
Marconi, each consisting of short, poetic prose pieces that dazzled
the reader well before creative non-fiction became mainstream.
Atmospheres Apollinaire highlighted France's belle époque (1900 to
1914) and featured Picasso and Apollinaire as principle characters
caught in the flash of history leading up to the First World War.
Indeed, war has been another of Frutkin's abiding interests: Invading
Tibet (1991) takes place in 1904, during Britain's invasion of Tibet,
and Slow Lightning (2001) charts the struggles of a young student in
the days leading up to the Spanish Civil War. Though securely
grounded in the real world, Frutkin's literary bent is for the quirky
and the metaphysical; he is, at heart, a lyricist, spinning the dross
of the everyday into the gold of poetic prose, fascinated with the
way fact and myth intertwine.
His new book, Erratic North - his first of straight non-fiction -
brings these themes together again, as he documents his own
semi-mythological odyssey from the United States in 1971 into Canada
to avoid the draft. Although this is a highly personal account, he
does point out in a middle chapter that as many as 200,000 dodgers
and deserters came to Canada from 1960 to 1973, and more than 500,000
members of the U.S. armed forces deserted, about the same number as
deserted from Napoleon's army during the disastrous Russian campaign.
"The war," he writes, "was lost in the fields, jungles, and paddies
of Vietnam, but it was also lost at home." The 1960s and '70s were a
turning point in the history of the United States and, as in so many
other cases, Canada was caught in the crossfire.
Frutkin and four friends, all with long hair, faded jeans and little
more in the way of material goods than a stash of marijuana seeds,
bought a 200-acre derelict farm in Quebec's Gatineau region,
northeast of Ottawa, and started a hippie commune. Known as The Farm,
it eventually attracted half a dozen families who, following Timothy
Leary's dictate, turned on, tuned in and dropped out; they built
homes, had children, worked the land, grew pot, walked into town for
groceries and generally rode out the storm of events that followed
the U.S. invasion of Southeast Asia.
Frutkin's memoir of the decade he spent on The Farm deals mostly with
the minutiae of survival without electricity or running water:
repairing the 1947 Chevrolet he bought for $200; shovelling snow from
his wood-splitting area; making maple syrup. Here he is baking bread:
"I had a hand grinder, which I attached to the side of the wooden
kitchen table. Into this I poured the wheat berries. I grasped the
thin curved handle of dark polished wood and began to turn, left palm
flat on the table to keep everything steady. It took me about forty
minutes of hard work to grind enough flour for two loaves of bread. I
didn't care - I had little money and plenty of time, all the time in
In such passages, it's as though he has winnowed out the fanciful in
order to elevate the mundane to a kind of Zen realism. But there is
also plenty of Frutkin the lyricist. He finds beautiful images in
otherwise ordinary days, like eggs among the litter on the henhouse
floor. He describes, for example, a painting by Marc Chagall, which
features a log cabin similar to Frutkin's at The Farm, and muses that
"the artist can free himself by seeking exile among the stars where,
like a saltimbanque of the night skies, he can travel from one star
to another over tightropes of light."
Frutkin also universalizes his experience as a war resister with
sections about his grandfather, Simon Frutkin, who emigrated to
Cleveland, Ohio, from Belarus to avoid being drafted into the Czar's
army in the 1890s, and about the resistance to conscription during
the Second World War by many in Quebec, including Louis Drouin, the
man from whom he buys the land that became The Farm.
But this is essentially Frutkin's story. For those who don't remember
the 1960s and are a bit vague about the '70s, Erratic North will
serve as a welcome refresher course. There are the obligatory co-ed
sessions in the home-made sauna beside the freezing river, the
mandatory RCMP raid that turns up the garbage bag of pot hidden in
the doghouse, the inevitable frictions between people living in each
other's pockets (although these remain ill-defined, no doubt in
deference to those still living on The Farm).
An erratic, of course, is a large boulder moved from its birthplace
to a distant location by the implacable forces of glacial advance and
retreat: Mark Frutkin was carried north by the Vietnam War, and has
remained to become one of Canada's most innovative and interesting writers.
Wayne Grady lived in Ottawa in the 1970s and resisted an invitation
to join a commune not unlike The Farm. He lives in the country near