Portrait of Tom Sawyer as Prairie Socialist

The Year We Became Us
A Novel About the Saskatchewan Doctors Strike

By Gary Engler  

“I kissed the Queen of Rightwing Talk Radio today. The really weird thing? I enjoyed it.” That’s Roy Schmidt talking, one of the protagonists in a fascinating new book by Vancouver novelist, journalist and trade union leader, Gary Engler. Roy is a lifelong leftist, failed novelist and faculty union officer; “The Queen of Rightwing Radio” is Katherine Anderson, a high school flame from Moose Jaw he’s reconnecting with in Boston in 2000. In youth a fan of the odious Ayn Rand, Katherine has gone over to the Dark Side, at least in Roy’s prairie socialist view, and become a kind of female Rush Limbaugh in the U.S. Their kiss, and the frisson of desire that bridges their lifelong political differences, is a key plot element in The Year We Became Us, a book one character calls “fiction and history making out in the back seat of a 1959 Chevy.”

The book is a competent and informative, but in the end, slightly pedestrian novel set during the 1962 Saskatchewan doctor’s strike, (a massive job action by prairie physicians taken to sabotage the province’s creation of North America’s first system of comprehensive public medical insurance.) The story is told through letters written to President Kennedy by the two Canadian young people, whose families support opposite sides in the dispute. This ’60s coming of age story is framed by a 21st century narrative that sees the two, now well advanced into uneasy middle age, reunited at the JFK Museum in Boston, where they have both arrived hoping to retrieve their letters from the institution’s archives.

A pivotal year in the history of North America, 1962 saw the battle over Medicare in Canada and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the U.S. each marking a defining moment for national identity. Engler links these two momentous events by having his novel’s protagonists disciplined in their Moose Jaw Catholic school for over-enthusiastic political debate. Their punishment is to draft letters to President Kennedy about the crisis he was facing as the U.S.-sponsored debacle at the Bay of Pigs gave way to threats that the U.S.S.R. would install missile silos on the island.

Roy is the product of a union and CCF family and Katherine’s father is one of the physician ringleaders in the attempt to scuttle the province’s new public health system. They each generate a package of letters in which they detail their attitudes toward each other, Kennedy, Cuba and communism, Saskatchewan health care and social democracy. They also reveal an ornately complex drama of teen life that includes stolen kisses, gossip, conspiracies, betrayal, fist fights, hockey and baseball.

Roy is presented as a kind of social democratic Tom Sawyer, a clever political animal who would rather use his oratory to prevent violence than to provoke it. Instead of tricking his neighbours into white washing a fence, Roy tricks them out of gang fights and into more cooperative, inclusive activity. All of this is charming, and some is pretty funny. The baseball games are lovingly portrayed, too, but the author’s vision of teen life in the early ’60s is oddly pallid. I think I remember a lot more terror, angst and madness flickering around the edges of the classroom and the playing fields of the 1960s than Engler brings to his narrative.

The Year We Became Us tells an important Canadian story in workmanlike prose. The author invites readers to revisit and celebrate the creation of the Canadian public health system. Along the way, Engler takes pains to make his characters plausibly complex and his story more than a set of simple political slogans.

Roy and Katherine are well-developed characters, and their bemused drift into a love affair that offends against their cherished political certainties is presented with some psychological sophistication.

Engler has already proven in his hilarious first book The Great Multicultural North that he can write side splitting comedy. While not as totally successful as that comic masterpiece, The Year We Became Us demonstrates that he is capable of serious fiction as well. This book is highly recommended, especially for readers who have forgotten their recent Canadian history.

Tom Sandborn is a Vancouver-based journalist, poet and activist. He can be reached at tos@infinet.net.

–Vancouver Sun, July 13, 2012

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