A superb journey, in 'Last Crossing'

April 18, 2004|By Anthony Day | Anthony Day,Los Angeles Times

The Last Crossing, by Guy Vanderhaeghe. Atlantic Monthly Press. 394 pages. $24.

The Last Crossing is a terrific novel, big, complex, gripping. Its author, Guy Vanderhaeghe, who lives in Saskatchewan and has published six previous novels and two plays, has a large following in Canada. He deserves one in the States.

His subject sweeps in time from the middle of the 19th century into the early 20th and stretches in space from Victorian England and the U.S. Civil War through the American West into the Canadian West, where its heart is.

In that sense, The Last Crossing is a historical novel that covers another era. But the opprobrium that some attach to the phrase "historical novel" should not apply here. The half-dozen or so major characters and many minor ones are palpably alive and present to the reader. Its plot -- and there is an intricate and thoroughly satisfying one -- is deft and put together seamlessly.

These are the bones of the story: One of the three sons of a rich and rigid Englishman leaves the family's fine country home and London dwelling and disappears into the western wilds of North America. In 1871, his twin brother and their older brother go in search of him.

The eldest, who in the army was involved in a very messy business of subduing protesters in Ireland, is both a romantic and -- despite the Irish dreams that haunt him -- a bit of an over-achieving Boy Scout. The younger brother, a painter, is wiser and more cautious.

They make their way to Fort Benton on the Missouri River, in what is now Montana. Here they meet the various souls who will go with them north to British territory, where the plains rise to meet the towering Rockies.

Among their companions is an intrepid woman who has a couple of searches of her own on her mind and another man who is what used to be contemptuously called a half-breed -- the son of a Scottish father and an Indian mother.

He is Jerry Potts, the only historical character in the novel, and as Vanderhaeghe slowly but steadily fills out his portrait, he turns out to be one of the most important. When we meet him he is a skillful but taciturn mountain man; by his death he has become, as he did historically, a great builder of the Canadian West and a conciliator between inflowing settlers and the bewildered Indians.

Vanderhaeghe's sure-footed tale comes to rest, in the end, on three pillars: Potts, the artist son Charles Gaunt and the remarkable woman Lucy Stoveall. No cliches lurk in his easy-flowing prose, which catches the look and feel of the North American West with arresting precision and displays it freshly, as if no one had described it before.

Vanderhaeghe re-creates a time when the new inhabitants of the continent were exploding westward and engulfing those who were already here. It was a time of violence, ambition, greed and shame, yet tempered by the human desire for stability, honor and love. It is not too much to call Vanderhaeghe's vast canvas magnificent.

Anthony Day was editor of the editorial page for the Los Angeles Times from 1971 to 1989 and has reviewed books for the Times since 1995. He grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Baltimore City College. This review was originally published, in longer form, in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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