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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 1, No. 1, 2002

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Robert J. Lewis
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Guy Vanderhaeghe's THE LAST CROSSING

Marina Endicott[Marina Endicott's book Open Arms was short-listed for the In Canada First Novel award. She lives in Cochrane, Alberta]

* * * * * * * * * *

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.

In the new world he craves, in America, the world crowds closer, demanding to be known.

Guy Vanderhaeghe's 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.

Vanderhaeghe's first 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."

Vanderhaeghe's border 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 his self-disgust.

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.

Various narrators 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.

Vanderhaeghe gives 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.

Sexuality drenches 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."

Genuine passion 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.


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