Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review #11: The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe

(A wonderful Canadian novel with precisely-drawn characters set in the old West.)

Set in the late 19th century, this is the story of three well-off English brothers: Simon and Charles Gaunt are twins, Addington is their elder sibling, a former soldier and arrogant scoundrel. At the behest of their dictatorial father, Charles and Addington travel to the prairies of the U.S. and Canada in search of the sensitive Simon who has disappeared. Much of the novel concerns their journeys through Indian country – bottles of port and claret rattling in their wagons – with a cast of intricately drawn, fully realized characters.

The small troupe is led through the whiskey-colored light by Jerry Potts, a half-breed, with one foot firmly in each world. The heart of the plot involves the love that Charles, a painter, feels for Lucy Stoveall, a simple but lovely country woman who accompanies them, secretly intent on revenging her sister’s murder. However, the most intriguing character in this marvelous collection of all-too-human personalities is Custis Straw, a bible-reading, heavy drinking Civil War veteran who also loves Lucy but is a man of tremendous dignity well hidden behind a bumbling fa├žade.

The author’s rich language reveals a genuine feel for the prairies and its rough settlements: “a spectacular mulberry dawn”, “a boom town draws rogues like a jam jar draws wasps”, “miles of wet plain patched with apple green, new penny copper, glints of silver”.

Though this is a “western” in the traditional sense, Vanderhaeghe never sinks into parody, but has utilized the western motif to reveal a number of profound universal truths about personal honor and human failings and strengths. His humane depiction of character goes deeper than any novel I have read in years

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