About the Author

Robert MacNeil

Born in Montreal, Robert MacNeil grew up in Halifax, attended Dalhousie University and graduated from Carleton in Ottawa. After early work as a CBC announcer, he was a journalist for forty years with Reuters News Agency, NBC News and the BBC, culminating in twenty years as Executive Editor of the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour on PBS. His bestselling novel, Burden of Desire, won rave reviews in Canada and the U.S. He is also the author of two other novels, The Voyage and Breaking News; three memoirs, The Right Place at the Right Time, Wordstruck, and Looking for My Country; and co-author of The Story of English and its sequel, Do You Speak American? He divides his time between New York and Nova Scotia.

Books by this Author
Burden of Desire

Burden of Desire

also available: eBook
tagged : historical
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Looking for My Country

Looking for My Country

Finding Myself in America
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In the winter of 1942, a couple of months after Pearl Harbor, I wrote to President Roosevelt.

I was eleven, living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was the third year of war for Canada, and our strategic port was a vital assembly point for convoys crossing the Atlantic to keep Britain's war effort alive. My father, a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, commanded one of the corvettes protecting those merchant ships from Hitler's submarine wolfpacks.

Even a boy my age could feel the high adrenaline of wartime Halifax. Men in the uniforms of many countries filled our streets; there were blackouts and air-raid drills, collections for scrap paper and metal, and the excitements of my dad's brief times ashore. Chocolate was scarce, my mother fretted over ration books for food and clothes; they built an antiaircraft gun tower beside my school, and we played war games in Point Pleasant Park. I could catch glimpses of the harbor from many places and watch gray warships of different navies slipping by -- destroyers and corvettes, sometimes cruisers, even full battleships -- inspiring awe and pride. Occasionally I could visit one and be taken over every inch by sailors fresh from the real war at sea.

For the rest, life was filled with school, helping with a baby brother born the day after Pearl Harbor, sledding, skating, snow forts and snowball fights, radio programs like The Green Hornet, movies like They Died with Their Boots On, comic books, real books, and my stamp collection.

My friend Harold Stevens and I were stamp collectors, but with limited pocket money we almost never bought stamps. We hoped to be given them.

We must have read about FDR's collection because it suddenly occurred to us to approach him, and I wrote something like this:

Dear President Roosevelt,
We have heard that you have a very big stamp collection and people send you stamps from all over the world. But you must be very busy with the war right now and may not have time to play with your collection, or use all the stamps people send you. We were wondering whether you had any extra stamps you didn't want. If so we would be very happy to have them.
Yours sincerely,

How two painfully well-mannered boys found the effrontery to concoct this brazen missive, I don't know. But I stuck on the red four-cent stamp of King George VI in his wartime uniform, addressed it to the White House, Washington, D.C., U.S.A., and forgot about it.

We did not write to our king, who we knew had a stamp collection at least as fabulous as the president's. The king seemed utterly unapproachable and FDR did not.

Six weeks or more later, a letter arrived from the American consul in Halifax. Indeed, he wrote, President Roosevelt was too busy with the war to reply personally, but if we cared to come down to the consulate, he was sure they could find us some stamps. We went and were overwhelmed. They gave us a shoe box with hundreds of stamps, including exotic specimens from the Malay Straits Settlement, which had been overrun by the Japanese.

It was my first experience of American generosity. Thinking about it now, it is tempting to try to reconstruct the actions our childish letter set in motion. It would have come to a Washington still new to the turmoil of war. Compared to its size today, the White House staff was tiny and informal. But among the thousands of letters pouring in, someone had read ours, on a generous impulse had sent it to the State Department, itself a fraction of the vast bureaucracy of American diplomacy today. Someone at State decided to be nice to these kids in Halifax and sent it on to the consul, and that gentleman had to ask around his office to discover they had stamps to give us.

All this while the American government was being wrenched through the first months of global responsibility; adolescent growth spurts that were to transform the executive branch forever, from the size and modesty befitting a nation trying to mind its own business to the behemoth with the habit of minding everybody's.

I have a fantasy that on that day Eleanor Roosevelt might have been trailing through the White House mail room dispensing sympathy and patriotic encouragement to overworked volunteers, when someone showed her my childish handwriting and the Canadian stamp. "How sweet!" she exclaims. Her first impulse is to take it to Franklin, who after all has zillions more stamps than he'll ever know, but he's busy just now with Winston Churchill, who is smelling up the White House with his cigars. . . .

Or, for all I know, the letter might have been intercepted by the busybody Royal Mail in Canada and given directly to the consul in Halifax. It doesn't matter. Americans reacted with extraordinary generosity and I never forgot it.

In fact, I remembered it particularly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, listening to President Bush at a news conference:

"I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about, that people would hate us. I am like most Americans, I just can't believe. Because I know how good we are."

I know how good we are. The phrase buzzed in my head as though many phone lines were ringing at once.

I know how good America is. To me personally, America and Americans have been good in measures too large to calculate. As for American goodness to its own people and to the world generally, I could probably calibrate its extent and limits objectively, and how differently goodness might be defined, historically and now. So I have a pretty confident idea of how good America is. And I know that to many, perhaps most Americans, the logic in the phrase I know how good we are is unassailable, admitting no irony. But I also know how such a statement might be heard by others, even by friends and allies.

I knew how it would fall on ears as sympathetic as those of America's closest friends and neighbors, the Canadians. The least paranoid would smile indulgently, but some would enjoy thinking, Typical . . . ingenuous, naive, too boastful.

In other words, the phrase would send a little pulse along the synapses of anti-Americanism that lurk in the nervous systems of even the most well-disposed non-Americans, including Canadians, because it is part of their self-definition.

I knew that, but I also knew that September 11 had changed something in me. While I understood how the president's words could be interpreted outside the U.S., my heart understood them differently. Watching the Twin Towers being attacked that day -- watching in my city, New York -- I awoke to a realization of how far I had traveled emotionally. For the first time in my long history of equivocation, I felt defensive about America as one feels about family and home when they are threatened. It shocked me differently from anything before. It made want to examine what nationality, citizenship, and patriotism mean to me.

It forced me to consider what I believe in -- and don't -- and my choices. I am, after all, what my choices have made me, many of them oblique choices in my mind, distracted by various fevers -- love, ambition, money, boredom, escape -- induced me to move on, to start over.

For a long time I was a man with a nationality but no inner country; or a man with a country but no psychic nationality. Put otherwise: I was a man still looking for his country. And what did country mean? Literally a nation, or a culture, or those pieces of several I had assimilated and found congenial?

In a poem, "The City of Tomorrow," the poet laureate Billy Collins writes that it

was not a place we would come to inhabit
but a place that inhabited us.

For me, there was often a disconnect between the country I inhabited and the country that inhabited me. After September 11, the two came together.

Perhaps a Canadian who has made this psychological journey can explain the ambivalence America inspires. I grew up with a skepticism about the United States, a predisposition to disparage it, a certain cultural distaste. The source was two Canadian parents who each had one American parent, and therein lies a tale my brothers and I have only recently unraveled. I think it was a mild strain of the same virus that infects even America's friends, at its most innocent a sardonic humor, but a virus which, in less friendly places, can flare up murderously.

My ambivalence is the world's ambivalence in a sense, inspired by what is inspiring and disinterested in American behavior, with the luxury of being put off by what is sometimes excessive, crude, ungenerous, yet feeling deep empathy for an America chastened and scared by September 11.
* * * * *

I became an American citizen in 1997. Unlike one's birth, chosen nationality is an examined nationality. Like chosen religion, it is part of the examined life. This freedom to choose one's nationality, one's religious affiliation, political attachments, sexual orientation and partners; whether to have children or not, whether to abort a child; the freedom of women to vote, to be educated, to take careers; the freedom to choose what one reads, to say what one thinks; to choose one's ethical standards, one's personal morality, are aspects of personal liberty that the United States has pioneered or greatly augmented in the last two centuries. They are precisely the freedoms abhorrent to religious fundamentalists here or abroad, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

I understood this well but I did not really get it, get it viscerally, until I watched those aircraft full of passengers -- imagining their last seconds, their minds and hearts racing in terror -- driven into the skyscrapers, then saw the ultimate despair of tiny figures leaping into space.

Seeing it suddenly vulnerable, I think I grasped in a new, almost mystical way, the true nature of the U.S.A.

Even if it sometimes appears conspicuously to lack Jefferson's "decent respect to the opinions of mankind"; even if Lincoln's "better angels" are not always in the ascendant; if it appears at times overweening, overbearing, and swaggering in its power, master of the universe; if it seems to outsiders to admire itself excessively; when it presumes uniquely to deserve God's blessing; even if, by comparison with others, it scants the poor to cosset the rich; the United States remains the most zealous promoter of democracy, the leading engine of world prosperity, the cockpit of social evolution and -- though often compromised and embattled -- the largest home of tolerance. It is, by and large, a force for good in the world. In a measure of ideals achieved, the glass is a lot more full than empty.

Thinking of Russia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, "When we say nationality, we do not mean blood, but always a spirit, a consciousness, a person's orientation of preferences."

Blood has never been the main American definition because her blood comes from everywhere: it has always been spirit, a consciousness, an orientation of preferences -- and so it is for me. It just took me a long time to see it.

On the morning I was born, my mother said, snow was thick on the windowsill of her room and nestled in it was a live robin. Improbable? Well, it was January in Montreal, when migratory robins are supposed to be in Florida or Mexico, and not due this far north until April. But my mother swore by her story and gave me the nickname Robin, the old diminutive for Robert. So this was the bird of my destiny, his onboard computer out of whack, trying to bring the spring three months early. Certainly prophetic.

As children we greeted the first snowfall rapturously, ran out to plunge into it and make snowmen, then as we got older made snow forts with elaborate passages, waged huge wars with snowballs, went sledding until it was so dark we couldn't see the bottom of the hill. As a teenager, skiing became my wintertime passion.

At first, snow was emotionally exhilarating, transforming gray winter into fairyland, softening, muting, insulating sound, making nature more intimate, making you feel cozier. It turned me on. The first time I kissed a girl was in the snow.

Later, I began to envy my birthday robin his fall migration south and yearned for places that were not imprisoned by snow for six months of the year. No one looked more obsessively than I for the first hints of spring: little icicles on maple trees that showed the sap was running; tiny but discernible buds on bushes; crystalline thaw on southfacing snowbanks; the sun ascending as the equinox approached. And in me grew an abiding ambivalence not just about the climate, but about the country that climate governed: feelings of pleasure and oppression mixed. By my early twenties the sense of confinement the winters imposed had become a metaphor for my private view of the cultural environment in Canada.

Before and after World War II, we spent years in Ottawa, the coldest national capital after Ulan Bator, but my brothers and I grew up first in Halifax, where the maritime climate made for milder winters and cool summers, and I think of Halifax as my hometown.

It was my mother's birthplace. Her father, Warren Oxner, was descended from Swiss Protestants who settled near Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, in 1750. Her mother was Daisy Neely, a southern belle from Chattanooga, one of my two American grandparents.

In Halifax, Warren prospered as a dentist. They lived in a large stone house on Spring Garden Road, and Daisy cut a lively figure in Halifax society. They sent my mother, Peggy, to school in Switzerland, which gave Daisy a reason for regular trips to Europe. In 1929, Bob MacNeil, representing Essex cars, turned up in Halifax. Seeing Peggy in the street, he picked a filling from a tooth and went to see her father the dentist, who liked the young man so much he invited him to dinner.

They were married in September 1929. A month later the Wall Street crash drove Essex cars out of business, and for three years Dad walked the streets of Montreal looking for work. Then, as the Great Depression really began to gnaw at Canadian life, he had another burden, a very sick child. I was born in 1931 and developed celiac, a disorder of the digestive system, causing chronic diarrhea and malnutrition. I spent much of the next two years in the hospital and, according to my grandmother Daisy, nearly died.

"Oh," she said in her dramatic way, "when I saw you in that hospital, you looked like one of the starving children in wartime. Your arms and legs were as thin as matchsticks and your belly was swollen out like this. I cried all the way back to Halifax in the train. I was sure I would never see you alive again."

From the Hardcover edition.

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Portrait of Julia

Portrait of Julia

A Novel
also available: Hardcover
tagged : historical
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