The Last Crossing
by Guy Vanderhaeghe
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
368 pages, 2004
The Dirty Old West
Reviewed by David Abrams
While reading Guy Vanderhaeghe's novel of the Old West, The Last Crossing, you might want to slip a little mood music into your CD player: a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, perhaps -- something with a lonely harmonica, a chorus of whistles that sound like coyotes, or a rousing crescendo that climaxes with the crack of a bullwhip.
The Last Crossing is a widescreen, big-landscape novel populated with rough, grimy characters who'd feel right at home in a western movie -- with or without spaghetti. Yet, Vanderhaeghe's novel is more than a sage-and-saddle yarn filled with cowboys and Indians; it's a saga about family ties, class prejudice, and failed ambition. On some levels, it's Middlemarch with chewing tobacco.
Originally published in Canada two years ago, it's only just now making its way south of the border after garnering awards, hitting the bestseller list and being picked as the "Canada Reads" book. Though parts of the novel are set in Saskatchewan, The Last Crossing is an American tale through and through. Thirty years ago, Hollywood might have turned it into a John Wayne movie -- the eyepatched, cynical Wayne of the Rooster Cogburn era, that is.
The tale opens in 1871 as English aristocrats Charles and Addington Gaunt are sent by their father to find Simon, another brother (and Charles' twin) who has gone missing somewhere in Montana territory. Simon, always the odd sheep of the family, has come to America on the coattails of a religious fanatic who hopes his missionary zeal will bring light unto the dark-hearted Indian tribes of the frontier. When the hapless Reverend Witherspoon is found dead after a blizzard and Simon is nowhere to be found, the worst is feared.
Nevertheless, the two brothers continue their quest, which eventually brings them to Fort Benton in Montana Territory where they meet the rest of the book's large cast of characters: Lucy Stoveall, abandoned by her husband and vowing revenge on the men who raped and murdered her little sister; Custis Straw, a shell-shocked Civil War veteran who is hopelessly and foolishly in love with Lucy despite the fact that he's 18 years her senior and she rarely turns an eye in his direction; Aloysius Dooley, saloonkeeper and Custis' faithful friend; Caleb Ayto, a journalist who's hired to turn Addington Gaunt's exploits into legend; and Jerry Potts, the half-Blackfoot, half-Scot guide who will lead them north toward Fort Whoop-Up in Alberta as the party searches for Simon. The Last Crossing is told in shifting perspective -- sometimes in first-person (Custis and Charles), sometimes in the third-person point-of-view. Most of the characters move through the story trying not to get swallowed up in the panorama of history.
As it turns out, Potts is a real historical figure, a legend in the annals of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who still revere him for his tracking and diplomatic skills. Described on a RCMP Web site as "a short, bowlegged, oddly dressed man who rarely spoke more than two words together," Potts leaps off the pages as the novel's most interesting character.
Less interesting are the Gaunt brothers, though Vanderhaeghe sets them up for some Shakespearean-level conflict. Addington is eight years older than Charles and Simon and has always treated them with a cavalier disregard. Their mother died giving birth to the twins, turning Addington's heart against them or, as his father remarks, "It must have put the worm in the apple."
That worm continues to turn as Addington and Charles venture deeper into the American frontier. While Charles just wants to find his soul-mate twin, Addington has other ambitions. As Charles tells us:
With every day that passes, it is brought home to me ever more clearly and discouragingly that my brother regards the search for his own brother as nothing more than an opportunity to exercise his taste for outdoor life and adventure. He is a character in a boy's book.
Indeed, haughty Addington rides around with delusions of self-grandeur, dreaming of a hunt for a grizzly bear in which he looms large as an epic hero:
Mr. Ayto will write that exploit up very thrillingly and he is certain Charles can be prevailed upon to do him a capital illustration for the book. There it is in his mind's eye, ravening bear erect on its hind legs, pawing the shaft buried in its throat, and there he is, a mere arm's-length away from those terrible teeth and claws, cool and collected.
When the encounter with ursus arctos horribilis comes -- and surely we know from all Vanderhaeghe's hints that it's inevitable -- the result is brutal and thrilling, one of a handful of memorable moments in The Last Crossing; others include a Civil War scene, an encounter with desperate outlaws holed up in a cave, a battle between the Blackfoot, Cree and Assiniboine tribes and a couple of sex scenes which the author firmly plants in our imagination through the use of graphic and visceral details.
Here is how Charles describes one erotic encounter with a woman while out strolling through Mother Nature:
Walks through the dew-soaked grass to gaze upon another dusky bronze, rose madder sunrise; a smear of leaping fire jigging up and down the spine of the horizon, slowly extinguishing the tiny stars, the aubergine sky flooded with light as the egg of the sun hatches a fierce, crowing blaze. Or sheltered in some leafy glade, falling on one another with hungry mouths, the aspen leaves dappling her with shade and sunshine as she disrobes. Yet every happy moment is undermined by the knowledge that all we share is fleeting, temporary. Sadness rising up even in the thrall of desire and passion.
Beyond the Rocky-Mountains-as-soft-porn motif in that paragraph, this is one example of the weight of discourse which pulls at the narrative and, at times, bogs it down to a crawl. Mostly confined to Charles's first-person sections, the lead-foot language is The Last Crossing's biggest handicap. Vanderhaeghe, through the medium of Charles, aims to resurrect the long-winded style of James Fenimore Cooper which is admirable but hardly productive -- especially when other sections rip along with the all the fervor of a dime novel.
The Last Crossing is a book crowded with exquisite details which hint at the long hours Vanderhaeghe spent poring over dusty manuscripts and going through the archives of historical societies. Here's just an example of a tidbit he must have stumbled across during research and couldn't resist including: one ancient Crow chief has a "mane [which] measured ten feet and which was kept rolled up in a package that he carried under his arm like a man returning home from a shop with a purchase." It's the little details like this which give The Last Crossing some much-needed flavor when the plot starts to weaken.
Woven into the action and detailed research, the psychological baggage gives the book its weight. In the course of the novel, we come to understand that the characters are not just fighting to preserve themselves from death by malevolent nature or marauding Indians, they're struggling to save the last shreds of a fast-disappearing frontier. Jerry Potts' moral burden, for instance, is "to save white men from themselves." As one character observes, in requiem, Potts was "a perfectly equipped factotum for a crucial transition in history." The Last Crossing attempts to paint a scenic landscape of that crucial transition, though without the tame, bucolic beauty of an Albert Bierstadt painting. The Old West on these pages is brutal, dirty, dangerous.
Gradually, we come to realize that the book's main character -- indeed, the only character that really matters -- is History itself. The tiny, brief lives of the people on these pages are ultimately less consequential than the panoramic time and landscape they inhabit. | May 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.