"The Last Crossing"
(reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 9, 2004)
"We are not alone. Given time, the spirit of the universe will accept us. For the present, it asks us simply to be. To be ourselves and not someone else's dream of us."
In this broad saga of the New Territories, from Montana into Canada, Guy Vanderhaeghe brings to life the search of two Englishmen for their lost brother, Simon Gaunt, who has pursued a charismatic preacher from England to North America in the hopes of converting the Indians to Christianity. No word has been heard from him in over a year. Sent to North America by their stern and unforgiving father to find the missing Simon, twin brother Charles Gaunt is determined to find and return with him to England, though older brother Addington is far less committed to that end. For Addington, the expedition is intended to be a tribute to his own bravery and celebration of his hunting skill-adventure at the expense of his frantic father.
When Addington arrives at Fort Benton, where he is to begin the expedition, he is accompanied by a fawning newspaper writer, Caleb Ayto, who will "'work something up' about his forthcoming rambles on the frontier, [and] scribble a flattering portrayal of Captain Addington Gaunt, intrepid British explorer and sportsman, for the delight of the public back home." To his brother Charles's disgust, Addington fails to begin the search for Simon immediately, though winter is fast approaching: "For the moment, Addington finds Fort Benton too congenial a place to immediately remove himself. There is game to be had a short ride out of the town, and he and Ayto make frequent visits to the pestilential brothels. He.[buys] rounds of drinks for men who are only too happy to hear him bray and brag as long as he keeps the whisky flowing."
The New Territories, in which the conflict of ideas between Charles and Addington is played out, are particularly attractive to foreigners like the Gaunts who, until then, have been part of the regimented Victorian society of 1870s England. Though all three brothers share the same blood and have had the same upbringing, they have taken very different paths in life, and the sojourn in North America now provides the stimulus which allows each one to discover his own inherent nature. For Addington, all controls have been removed, and he has no moral resources to prop up his quickly waning sense of justice and honor. For Charles, an artist and romantic, new opportunities exist for him to meet people from other levels of society, including women, and learning from them. More open than Addington, but by no means democratic in his thinking, Charles, nevertheless, recognizes goodness where it exists, and deplores pretension and affectation. The missing Simon, the most sensitive of the brothers, "always had a weakness for madcap, pious schemes," a man "dreaming so deeply as to be incapable of wakening to reality."
The motley search party, when it finally sets out, consists of men (and one woman) who are all seeking some kind of love, acceptance, and a sense of connection to the wider world. Jerry Potts, the scout, is half Scots and half Blackfoot Indian, not wholly accepted by his Indian ancestors, but not accepted by white society, either. Rejected by his Crow wife after he scalped her Crow people in battle, he is now alone and yearning for his small son. Lucy Stoveall is searching for the brutal killers of her 13-year-old sister Madge Dray, the child she has raised since the age of seven, and feels responsible for her death. Having survived a terrible, abusive marriage, Lucy finds some modicum of solace with Charles Gaunt as she prepares to exact her revenge on Madge's killers. Custis Straw, also on the expedition, is hooked on laudanum and drink--and in love with Lucy. He suffers from nightmares that have plagued him since the Civil War about the bloody battles in which he has participated and about the loss of his family.
Charles Gaunt finds that his aristocratic blood limits him in North America in ways he never contemplated. Though he develops genuine fondness for Lucy, he feels a sense of honor toward his father, a man who shows him no respect at all. Addington, who becomes physically ill and deranged as time progresses, hunts and kills animals and Indians for the sheer bloodlust. Constant motifs of blood and bloodlines pervade the novel, as the individual characters struggle to understand their identities by birth and the accidents of history that have made them who they are now. As they recollect the past and contemplate the future, the reader becomes aware of the questions at the heart of this novel: "Who am I, what do I really believe, and how best can I live my beliefs?"
During the expedition's traverses of the Northwest in search of Simon, the reader observes the bloody struggles and immense losses that have occurred during settlement of the frontier, especially to the Indian populations, as the ideas, products, and diseases of the white man's world have swept aside their old cultures and long-held beliefs. Conflicts among the Indian nations, brought to life here in an exciting sequence of battles, find their parallels in Custis Straw's nightmares of the Civil War, while conflicts between Indians and whites are so one-sided that they can only mean the ultimate end of Indian civilization, beliefs, and social structure.
Readers looking for an exciting story of the last frontier should enjoy this rousing novel. The great Northwest, with the power and grandeur of its scenery, its wildlife, and its rapidly changing weather provides for innumerable dramatic scenes here. The honorable and caring Lucy, while not exactly pure as the driven snow, and the venal Addington, whose illness may be partly to blame for his brutality, are as much the personifications of good and evil as the heroines and villains in western melodramas. Ultimately, all the plot elements unite in a satisfying conclusion which extends twenty-five years beyond the search for Simon. For this fascinating and lively melodrama, with its firmly held convictions about right and wrong in the settlement of the frontier, one can almost hear echoes of a melancholy honky-tonk piano in the background.
- Amazon readers rating: from 39 reviews
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Man Descending: Stories (1982)
- The Trouble with Heroes and Other Stories (1983)
- My Present Age (1984)
- Homesick (1989)
- Things as They Are?: Stories (1992)
- The Englishman's Boy (1996) * (Kindle version)
- The Last Crossing (2002, January 2004 in US) * (Kindle version)
*Set in Whoop-Up Country
(back to top)
- What Canadians are Reading
- Saskpublishers.sk.ca article on humble Guy Vanderhaeghe
- Guardian Unlimited review of The Last Crossing
- SFGate review of The Last Crossing
- The Seattle Times review of The Last Crossing
(back to top)
About the Author:
Guy Vanderhaeghe was born in Eastern Saskatchewan in 1951. He received a Master of Arts in History at University of Saskatchewan and later received his Bachelor of Education at the University of Regina.
Vanderhaeghe has won a number of prestigious literary awards. In 1982 he won the Governor-General's Award for his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Man Descending. His second novel, Homesick (1989), won the City of Toronto Book Award. In 1996, he won the Governor-General's Award a second time for his novel, The Englishman's Boy, beating out five other finalists including Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. The Englishman's Boy was also shortlisted for The Giller Prize and the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.The Last Crossing is a long-time national bestseller and winner of the Saskatoon Book Award, the Saskatchewan Book Awards for Fiction and for Book of the Year, and the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year was shortlisted for The Giller Prize and the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Guy lives with his wife in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where he is a Visiting Professor of English at St. Thomas More College at The University of Saskatchewan.