The Last Crossing
McClelland & Stewart, 2002
First published in the Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
At its heart, The Last Crossing, two time Governor General’s award-winning author Guy Vanderhaeghe’s much anticipated new novel, is a good old-fashioned western melodrama complete with dashing hero, a beautiful, if somewhat mule-headed heroine in distress, a dastardly villain, a wise man of experience, an inscrutable native mystic and a quest. It takes no time at all, however, for the story to convince the reader that this is not, necessarily, a bad thing.
Beautifully structured, with intricate characterizations, and a propulsive narrative, Vanderhaeghe’s work proves once again that it is an author who brings his shortcomings to a genre, not the reverse, and in the hands of a powerful writer, even the most well worn plot can be spun into gold.
The story begins as Charles Gaunt, a wealthy British society portrait painter, of minor repute, whose recently published book of love poetry, The Spanish Steps, dedicated to a mysterious, sloe-eyed beauty, has brought him some unexpected, late-in-life celebrity, receives a letter from Canada informing him of the death of Jerry Potts, a folk figure of some local importance. The news plunges him into a nostalgic reverie, despite the fact that, as he admits, he has not seen the man for over a quarter of a century. The reader is immediately intrigued – what possible connection could there be between this comfortably stuffy English gentleman, and a western Canadian folk hero? Thereon, of course, hangs the tale.
His reverie takes Charles back twenty five years to the adventures of his youth, when in the mid-1800’s, he and his older brother Addington were sent by their wealthy railroad baron father to search the wilds of the North American west for Charles’s twin brother Simon. Simon, always the nonconformist, had disappeared after having, naively, his family believed, been lured away by the charismatic Reverend Witherspoon, to help bring Christianity to the native Indians.
Hopeless greenhorns who arrive well-stocked with English marmalade and excellent port, but a little short on survival skills, the brothers must enlist the services of enigmatic, contradictory and initially unprepossessing Jerry Potts, a half-breed of Blackfoot and Scots blood, to guide them safely through this wild, strange, beautiful but often brutal new world. In the process of assembling their expedition the brothers’ paths cross those of Lucy Stoveall, a down-on-her-luck, fiery-haired beauty, with murder on her mind, and Custis Straw, a sturdy, dependable Civil War veteran, who, although haunted by a few ghosts of his own, is, in local terms, a man of substance. As fate would have it, both Lucy and Custis, for reasons entirely their own, join the Gaunt cavalcade as it sets off from Fort Benton, in the Missouri River valley, to scour the western frontier for Simon.
The tale of their epic adventure is told in three voices – those of Lucy Stoveall, Charles Gaunt and Custis Straw, with occasional asides from Aloysius Dooley, a stalwart friend of Custis. And epic it is – complete with romance, betrayal, madness, strange and otherworldly landscapes, power struggles and mystic encounters, all set against the colorful backdrop of the developing frontier.
In The Last Crossing, the story is, without a doubt, “the thing” and it is Vanderhaeghe’s formidable, yet transparent technique that allows the narrative to take precedence without diminishing either setting or characterization. In fact, the book has garnered widespread praise for its accurate evocation of the western landscape, and the rich and detailed portraits of the main characters is another of its great delights.
Between the two brothers, Charles and Addington, intricate family and sibling conflicts are already in play long before the expedition is under way and are only exacerbated by Addington’s increasingly pugnacious and erratic behaviour once on North American soil. Products of their time and place, both brothers suffer from a myopic Victorian Englishness, but it is Charles, the younger and more self-aware, who, alone, is capable of integrating his experiences, at least temporarily, into a new and broader world outlook.
The smugly self-satisfied certitude of these two young English dandies is skillfully played against the quiet, and unassuming frontier competence of the much older Custis Straw, and in particular, the elusive and enigmatic Jerry Potts, a character based on a real individual of the same name who played a pivotal role in the opening of the Canadian West. Living in perpetual conflict because of his dual cultural citizenship, the half-breed Potts has come to believe that it is his duty in life, to “save the white men from themselves.”
As one might expect, the beautiful Lucy brings with her the element of romance, and she forms the basis of an unusual love-triangle, the ultimate outcome of which remains in doubt, even as the book’s final words reverberate in the reader’s mind.
A word must be reserved for Vanderhaeghe’s writing. There are many strengths, of course, but one is taken, in particular, with his skillful use of setting to reveal a character’s inner realities, both physical and mental. It requires later revelations in the plot for the reader to fully appreciate how brilliantly the circumstances in which Addington is initially portrayed reveal his personal reality, and although Jerry Potts is first met howling drunkenly in the streets, his essential dignity is communicated in a scene of exquisite softness and serenity, in which Charles discovers him sitting, Gandhi-like, along the bank of a river, under a “moulting cottonwood” in the pearl gray of a prairie dawn, silently and laboriously “practising thinking in English.”
Vanderhaeghe has, as well, a deft way with a descriptive phrase, and the clean energetic flow of the narrative is due, in no small part, to his ability to convey a complicated image with a few perfectly chosen words. For example, describing the moment when one character fully realizes his situation upon finding himself lost and alone in a blinding prairie blizzard, the author notes that “A cold clinker of fear settled in the grate of his belly.” Further illustrating the freezing vortex in which the character was caught, Vanderhaeghe writes that “The wind caught the lid [of a tin the character was attempting to open] tore it from his hand, kited it off into the howling night.” It is the single word “kited” that gives this last description its power, because it so exactly precisely conveys the effects of that fierce wind.
Above all, The Last Crossing is a first rate story told with skill and energy by a first-rate storyteller, chock full of vivid images, fascinating characters and memorable places, and, as Vanderhaeghe so convincingly demonstrates in this book, that’s all you really need.