Vanderhaeghe's THE LAST CROSSING
Endicott's book Open Arms was short-listed for
the Amazon.com/Books In Canada First Novel award. She lives
in Cochrane, Alberta]
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On a journey that
begins with an all-night walk from Oxford to London, Simon Gaunt
tells his brother Charles, "This is the world. Not that."
The unaccustomed emptiness of night lets Simon feel and know
the world as he never can in daylit England.
the new world he craves, in America, the world crowds closer,
demanding to be known.
The Last Crossing is an absolutely wonderful book, the
kind of literature that reminds other writers of why they want
to create, and convinces readers that the world is a vast and
mythic enterprise, larger than our individual crises or triumphs.
book, Man Descending, won the Governor General's award,
allowing Vanderhaeghe to continue to work as an artist and buy
a set of golf clubs. This is as close to Horatio Alger as we
get in Can Lit. His early stories and novels were set in the
west, within a small circle of attention that he has been gradually
expanding, from the domestic to the gigantic.
His last book, The
Englishman's Boy (which won the Governor General's award
again), examined perceptions of the West, seen at close range
by the young cowboy Shorty and later, filtered through Hollywood's
vaselined eye. Now he has followed up this first Western Epic
with The Last Crossing, again expanding his reach, to
cross histories, borders and story lines with remarkable virtuosity.
As Cormac McCarthy
created a passionate tribute to the frontier between the U.S.
and Mexico, Vanderhaeghe is in the process of developing an
equally important "Border" work that looks at the
idea of the 49th. For its stories and its power, The Last
Crossing relies on the concept of this frontier, Frederick
Jackson Turner's "meeting place between savagery and civilization."
lies between old and new world, white and Indian, the love and
hatred between brothers, sisters, husband and wife, and particularly
the impassable wall between the English and the white North
Americans, so briefly removed from England in time but so far
removed by landscape.
In 1871, Charles
Gaunt and the despicable Addington Gaunt come to the new world
searching for their lost brother Simon, who "caught the
disease of romanticism" and vanished into a snowstorm somewhere
north of Fort Benton, Montana, on his way to convert the savages.
But it is he who is converted, or translated, by the wilderness.
The book slips back
and forth in time like a delirious dream until the actors are
assembled and the action can begin. The Americans join the narrative
next: Custis Straw, a veteran of the Civil War, his no-account
kinfolk the Kelso brothers, and Lucy Stoveall, whose darling
sister Madge is viciously murdered one night. The murder becomes
the impetus for the headlong action of the book.
The party sets out
for the north, led by Jerry Potts, the half-Indian guide, who
contains in his own body one of the civil wars of the book,
between the white world and the Indian world, in his Blackfoot
mother and his two Scots fathers, his Blood wife and son, his
wild drinking and his far-ranging knowledge - in his honor and
The historical Jerry
Potts led the North West Mounted Police on their famous march
West, and his advice and influence was vital during treaty negotiations
and the Riel Rebellion. Here, before that historical future,
Potts stands plagued by guilt yet prepared to act.
take up the tale, but it's never disjointed, and the immediacy
of the accounts confers enormous emotional authenticity. So
does the nineteenth century language, with words like "skedaddle"
used in perfect seriousness by Custis Straw, by turns a giant
of intelligent fortitude and a pitiful fool, chasing after a
woman who doesn't want him, wearing the belt that killed her
sister as a goad for his elephant conscience.
us the nineteenth century, and the distance between that world
and ours, in the weakness of the body: the vile ailments and
viler medicines of that time. The syphilitic Addington addresses
his symptoms by smearing himself with mercury or ingesting lead;
Custis doses his Civil War demons with laudanum, his mysterious
ailments and fevers with a variety of cures culminating in blood-letting.
The old man in the village of the dead staggers on his infected
feet "like I was wearing two loaves of black bread for
shoes." The desperate remedies, the drink, the ferocity,
are not sovereign against this appalling life, but they serve.
the book, both hideous and virtuous, lit brighter in the new
world under the dazzling sky. But it is darkened, as is every
other element of the book, by the harder tin-cut shadows that
Charles finds under the new light.
That bleak light
displays the world as it is, to those who can bear to look.
Custis Straw, lying in a Civil War hospital, newly introduced
to the Bible, sees the suffering boys around him as images of
Jesus on earth, each of them God. "God staring up at God,
and God staring down at God," he says, and urges them to
take up their beds and walk, go home.
Like Simon and Charles
once did on their overnight walk from Oxford, the search party
travels through the darkness towards "the city that exists
or may exist at the end of our journey." Addington's unreachable
city is power and glory, with his mother as Queen; Charles and
Lucy's is love. Custis's city is resurrection.
Turned poet in middle
age, Charles Gaunt tells a young man, "The praise my verse
has won is not due to its excellence as poetry, but rather because
of the genuine passion it so awkwardly expresses."
fills this great book, but it is deftly revealed and expressed.
However exacting the research and the work, The Last Crossing
must have been a pure pleasure to write. It is a joy to read,
to go through this wild world with a writer who has fully stretched
out, over a landscape big enough to accommodate his stride.