Six years since his highly acclaimed award-winning novel, The Englishman's Boy, Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing hits the presses and readers are running to their bookstores in eager anticipation of a long-awaited reading experience. A self-professed "Big Sky Guy," Vanderhaeghe hails from Saskatchewan where his numerous fans proudly claim him as a voice that speaks legitimately for the collective experience of the prairie and where, far away from the "fast-lane," they will patiently wait until the author is ready to present his newest work to them. And if the proverb, "everything comes to those who wait," ever had any truth to it, it is now¨for this book has everything to reward their patience.
Polyvocal and embracing several genres, Vanderhaeghe's novel is fictional and non-fictional. His aim is to let the prevalent themes and events he describes recapitulate the history of the pioneer days on the prairies. The Last Crossing is truly Vanderhaeghe's masterpiece. The story is richly and often humorously told within settings that move between late nineteenth-century England and the Canadian and American frontier. Layer upon layer of interwoven themes and allusions along with a multifarious cast of colorful characters, each of whom is believable and unforgettable, deepen the reading experience, and while readers will turn the pages with eager anticipation, they will also want to go back and revisit what they've just read. The variety of voices, settings and action evokes an almost inebriated response from the reader whose imagination is sparked to overflowing by such abundance.
The quest motif pervades the novel¨everyone is on a journey. Vanderhaeghe deftly melds romance and realism¨historical details are accurately placed (and assiduously researched) in a way that lends credibility to the element of romance that such journeys evoke. The relationship between fathers and sons, a persistent theme in Vanderhaeghe's earlier novels, frames the action from beginning to end, and anchors the rapidly changing plotline. Leaving England and their stern and aging father, Henry Gaunt, Charles, a portrait artist, travels through the wilderness frontier with his older brother, Addington, a disgraced military captain with a mean streak, in search of their brother, Simon. Despite his absence throughout most of the novel, Simon Gaunt is the most fascinating of all the characters. As an absence presente he swells to embody the qualities all of Vanderhaeghe's characters (and indeed the reader) yearn for. Charles's memories of his close bond with his twin brother underscore a sensitive and openly affectionate nature that, paradoxically, lend him a determination and strength that is enviable to all. The importance of finding Simon becomes the most compelling aspect of the plotline.
Vanderhaeghe is a meticulously careful writer, not superfluously showy¨descriptive passages are written with painstaking care without a hint of pretense. His prose is modest yet wonderfully authentic, giving formidable weight to the tale and to the characters that inhabit it.
Taking on the attitude of radically differing characters, ranging from the crusty Civil War veteran Custis Straw, to the only female in this unlikely group, Lucy Stoveall, he works like a "method actor. . . stepping entirely into one character and then into another." In fact, the highly visual quality of this book could lead to the writing of another a filmscript just as his previous novel, The Englishman's Boy, has.
This quasi-historical book is dedicated "to all those local historians who keep the particulars of our past alive" and so Vanderhaeghe blurs literary boundaries by telling both a 'story' and a 'history'. He even takes it upon himself to right a wrong that has bothered him for a long time. He explains his motivation for including the character of Jerry Potts, whose story he read about in the Fort McLeod newspaper: "Potts at least in some way, has been present in my mind since I was 10 years old." Thus, Vanderhaege gives full due to a man he feels is likely the single biggest reason why this part of Canada stayed Canadian. Jerry Potts, half-white, half-native, and torn between two worlds, "kn[ew] that to live divided [was] dangerous, a confusion that sicken[ed] the spirit." He was an extraordinary scout for the Europeans, and a brave and accomplished man for his Blackfoot family. If he had not led the North West Mounted Police to where the American whiskey traders were gathered, Southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia would likely have been made part of the U.S. The novel ends with a dramatic account of the last Indian battle in the Canadian NorthWest at Fort Whoop-Up, one of the most notorious whiskey posts in the plains regions, that took place around 1870 and features Potts's part in it.
Despite the toughness and isolation of the characters¨each lives in his "respective darkness"¨an unusual triangular love story emerges. Bound by parallel quests to do something for the sake of a sibling, Charles and Lucy Stoveall meet. Lucy wants to avenge her sister's vicious murder. Ultimately, Charles falls passionately in love with Lucy despite their obvious social differences¨differences of which she is acutely aware despite her felt passion for Charles: "I understood how the signposts of each of our solitary roads can hardly be read by the other because they are so unlike." His opportunity to "surrender" to her takes on greater significance in the context of the novel's central theme of "crossing over" expressed in the title. Charles is haunted by a question Simon posed to him when they were at college: "Do you not desire to love and be loved, Charles?" He adds "I think you shall never be a great painter until you surrender to love." In an unexpected plot twist, Charles is later given similar advice by Custis Straw, who tells him that he must take the opportunity presented to him and "cross to the other side": "One thing I'll say is this. If ever I caught sight of the Promised Land, I'd make my way over to it, [or] die trying. . . If you want Lucy Stoveall, cross over. Don't keep her waiting on the other side of the bank." Eventually, all of the thematic threads of the novel are tied into this larger one.
If Vanderhaeghe leaves us with his own words of wisdom, and I believe he does, it is to resurrect and expand our "faith" in all of its multiple forms¨from Lucy Stoveall's dreams and rituals, to Jerry Potts's mystical native spirituality, to the freedom envisioned in stories of the Wild West, and finally to Simon's rebirth in a new world. Crossing to the other side is to avoid the "dangerously deadening" choice of living without commitment. Vanderhaeghe's ability to hold in his imagination all of these characters and all of this vast narrative with its complexity of tensions and intensity of meaning, is testament to the creative genius of this writer and his passionate commitment to his craft. ˛