Paardeberg, South Africa is far from the Canadian prairies. In 1899, best friends from the small town of Portage la Prairie, Will and Mason, sign up with the Winnipeg Rifles’ “A” Company to fight in the Second Boer War. Here they meet Robert, the silent anthropologist from Alberta with a mystery he isn’t revealing; Claire, an Australian nurse, chafing under her parents’ glass ceiling; and Campbell Scott, a rebellious veteran with an African wife and a hot air balloon requisitioned by the army for spying.
All are fleeing their former lives but to be free they must face the shattered bodies of war. In the dust and desert of South Africa, they drift towards each other in ways that can spell either disaster or salvation. Different reasons fuel each person’s motion: Mason wants to fight in the name of justice, pride, and manliness. Will, hesitant from the start, ultimately learns that war is hell. Claire struggles for independence, and Campbell Scott drowns his disillusions in his wife’s potent homebrew.
Drift is about challenging and crossing borders and boundaries between and within countries, races, and individuals. History and fate have some hold over the characters but ultimately they have to make decisions in order to stop drifting. With breathtaking grace, Leo Brent Robillard delivers an unstoppable story.
"[Robillard's] prose is economical without being sparse....a style somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway, and it suits his subject well."
-- Winnipeg Free Press
"Robillard's powers of description are poetic, while his action is tight, forceful, compelling....The result is a poignant story of war's reality and what it does to people."
-- Brockville Recorder and Times
"Drift is a beautifully written story."
-- Arlene Smith, Indigo
- "Leo Brent Robillard knows that questions raised by the Boer War are strikingly relevant to our times: are wars waged for political or ethical reasons—to secure diamond and gold mines or to end slavery, to protect oil shipments or to bring democracy? In prose as crisp and bracing as the Great Karoo itself, Drift examines what motivates us to volunteer to fight a war that is not our own, whether it’s idealism, escapism, or cynicism, and shows what happens when any ism comes gunsight to gunsight with reality. Robillard gets it, and he gets it right."
—Wayne Grady, author, with Merilyn Simonds, of Breakfast at the Exit Cafe
- "So often it takes fiction to reveal the truths about our own history. Leo Brent Robillard’s Drift puts a human face on the plight of a soldier of the Second Boer War, a young man with A Company of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles—the “Little Green Devils”—fighting in a faraway land. Armed with his Lee-Enfield rifle, the Canadian warrior encounters new technology in the form of superior guns and observation balloons. He struggles with both the individuality of his fellow fighters, and the sudden and incomprehensible anonymity of their deaths. He learns the true cost of victory."
—Rita Donovan, author of As for the Canadians
Suggested Book Club Questions for Drift
- Comment on the different meanings of the title.
- How and why have attitudes regarding war changed over the last century?
- Media and media coverage of war have also evolved since the Anglo-Boer War. How might these developments play a role in our changing attitudes?
- Despite all that has changed, the Anglo-Boer War and modern conflicts still have much in common. For instance, what parallels can be drawn between Canada's current role in Afghanistan?
- A key conflict in the novel revolves around a disgraceful incident Will witnesses between Canadian troops and an African boy. This occurrence is loosely based upon an event that transpired while Canadian soldiers were serving in Somalia during the 1990s. How is it that amidst the atrocities of war, we can still be outraged by certain forms of violence while accepting others as necessary? Have these lines shifted in the last one hundred years?
- While war is often waged in the name of righteousness and justice – or human rights today – these philosophical concepts are, more often than not, thinly veiled dressing for slightly more base economic imperatives. During the Anglo-Boer War, it was access to diamonds and other resources in South Africa. What modern conflicts fit this description? Why do we feel the need to "dress up" these economic pursuits?
- When referring to Africa, Campbell says, "There are European footprints all over this continent. But the wind erases them eventually." What does this mean? Is it true? Where else do we see this in history?
- All the characters in the novel find themselves at the mercy of history. Some attempt to carve out their own destinies within the confines of history, some ignore history, and some throw their hands up in defeat. Comment specifically on Will, Robert, Claire, Mason and Campbell. What about minor characters such as Siphokazi or Hilde?
- Discuss the development of Will's relationship with Claire. How is their "love" believable?
- What, if anything, does Will learn on this journey? How is he different in the end?
Leo Brent Robillard is an author and an educator. His work has appeared in various magazines, journals, and anthologies in Canada and abroad. He is a past recipient of the George Johnston Poetry Prize, the Ray Burell Award for Poetry and the Cold Steel Crime and Mystery Award. He is the author of three Turnstone Press novels, Leaving Wyoming, Houdini’s Shadow, and Drift. He lives, teaches, and writes in Ontario.