The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2002
Borrowed from my library. Chosen as the 2004 Canada Reads novel and nominated for the 2004 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
I chose to read this book for the Hop-a-long, Git-a-long, Read-a-long, having never read westerns before. Well that’s not exactly true, I started reading Blood Meridian but gave up after too many blood-soaked passages.
Brothers Charles and Addington Gaunt are goaded by their father into traveling to Fort Benton, Montana, to search for Charles’ twin, Simon, who has disappeared in the northern plains. Addington, a disgraced army officer, leads the search party as if it is some sort of British expedition. They hire Jerry Potts, a half-Blackfoot, half-Scot tracker and guide, to lead them north. Joined by an assortment of characters, the brothers travel into Canada, weaving the threads of their varied stories together. The novel is told in several voices, all different and distinct. Jerry Potts, known as Little Bear, was a buffalo-hunter, trader and guide for the North West Mounted Police in the 1870’s and he quiet presence grounds the fictional search party and allows it to move forward, constantly pushing against Addington’s foolish disregard for reality.
Jerry Potts in the sensitive antennae of the caravan. He feels their way for them, heavily laden wagons creeping behind him, the slow fumbling body of a cumbersome insect. From dawn to dusk they crawl past ravines and low prominences, inch over muddy river fords. After two days they gain British territory, steal past the southern flanks of the Cypress Hills, squirm around Old Man On His Back Hills, nosing their way towards the Whitemud River. From page 127.
The story is driven by two mysteries, Simon’s disappearance after he follows an evangelical preacher into the wilderness, and the murder of a young girl, Madge Dray. Lucy Stoveall, Madge’s older sister, begs to join the party, claiming she is searching for her husband but, in truth, searching for Madge’s killers. Her being in the troop adds layers of tension and passion to the story. Scenes are vividly portrayed, hard travel, wild lands, a great battle between the Blackfoot, Cree and Assiniboine warriors, something I never thought I would be enthralled by.
Vanderhaeghe pulls the threads of this historical novel together with great skill. There are elements of Victorian class, culture and sexuality and the driving force of colonial expansion. I enjoyed The Last Crossing, am very glad I gave this “western” a try. Thanks for the inspiration, James. I will be reading more titles from your list.