Ian Colford Reviews Margaret Sweatman’s Gripping Coming-of-age / Adventure story
The Gunsmith’s Daughter
Goose Lane Editions
In The Gunsmith’s Daughter, Margaret Sweatman’s sixth novel, it is 1971. Lilac Welsh is eighteen. She lives with her parents, Ruby and Kal, sharing with them a life of splendid isolation in a luxurious house that Kal designed and had built in Rough Rock, on the Winnipeg River.
Lilac has spent her youth sheltered in comfort and bounty, thanks to her father’s lucrative work as a designer and manufacturer of high-end weapons that are in demand in hot spots around the globe. She has never troubled herself with the moral implications of her father’s chosen profession. But that is about to change.
Kal’s latest project has driven a wedge into the family. He boasts that the “Stalker,” his new .50 calibre assault rifle, can take down an airplane with a single shot. He’s preparing to bring it to market, but the gun makes Ruby uneasy (she sneeringly calls it “butt ugly”). Lilac, though young, is not blind to the emotional divide that’s opened up between her parents.
Then a young man arrives on their doorstep. Gavin McLean worships Kal Welsh and harbours a respectful admiration for his work. Moreover, Gavin, despite being Canadian, has decided to enlist in the US army so he can serve in Vietnam: his aim, to make something of himself. Gavin’s presence in the Welsh home is brief, but he and Lilac strike up a close spiritual and intimate physical connection, and she’s bereft when he gets on a bus bound for the US and whatever fate awaits him.
For Lilac, the war in Vietnam has been an abstract concept: despite her father’s stories of being there in the early 1960s, the deadly conflict remains comfortably remote: the stuff of newspaper headlines. But Gavin’s determination to participate in a war that’s growing more controversial by the moment makes it tangible in a way she’s never experienced and sets her on a path she never saw coming.
From this intriguing setup, Sweatman fashions a gripping coming-of-age / adventure story of a young woman’s awakening into a world much larger and more dangerous and morally complex than she’d imagined. After Gavin leaves for a recruiting centre in the US, Lilac wangles a position as junior reporter with the Winnipeg Tribune, which, through tenacity, bravado and sheer force of will, she transforms into an assignment as a Vietnam War correspondent. Naïve and perhaps more confident than she should be, she travels to Saigon armed with tape recorder and notebook, convinced she wants to find Gavin so she can tell his story. But what she’s really looking for is the person she’s meant to be.
The bulk of Sweatman’s taut narrative chronicles Lilac’s efforts to distance herself from everything her domineering father stands for and assert her independence. Along the way she meets a variety of compelling characters who aid in her effort to tell the stories of those serving on the front line of a conflict that people all over the world have realized is not only unjust and brazenly mercenary, but also a lost cause.
The historical novel presents unique challenges to fiction writers. But Margaret Sweatman, who has evidently immersed herself in the history of the Vietnam War, seamlessly incorporates details gleaned from her research into a relentlessly engaging and suspenseful novel. The Gunsmith’s Daughter, possessing the forward thrust of a whodunit, makes for compulsive reading and is clearly the work of a seasoned writer who knows what she’s doing every step of the way.