Guy Vanderhaeghe's fourth novel, The Last Crossing, succeeds as a historical entertainment, as a romance, and as an examination of the North American soul. Vanderhaeghe takes thematic and narrative elements from his very similar The Englishman's Boy (1996) and expands them to epic scale.
The Last Crossing begins in 1896, with Charles Gaunt, a minor painter, suddenly receiving unexpected acclaim for a collection of love poems. After Charles receives a newspaper clipping about the death of the legendary half-Indian frontiersman, Jerry Potts, he begins reflecting upon the events of 1871. At that time, Charles's twin brother, Simon, a religious idealist, journeys to the American West with the Reverend Obadiah Witherspoon, whom Charles suspects is a confidence man, to convert Indians to Christianity. When Simon is not heard from, their father sends Charles and his older brother, Addington, in search of his favorite son. While Charles hopes to find and become reconciled with his beloved twin, Addington is concerned only with the adventure of the trip, acquiring as their companion Caleb Ayto, an American journalist who will chronicle Addington's exploits.
Most of the action occurs in and around Fort Benton on the Missouri River in the Montana Territory. There, the Gaunts acquire the half-Blackfoot, half-Scottish Potts as their guide and meet Custis Straw, a Civil War veteran who owns a ranch near the fort. Straw is in love with Lucy Stoveall, who, with her younger sister, Madge, works as a laundress after being abandoned by her husband. Charles finds himself falling for the simple Tennessee country woman. When Madge is raped and murdered, Lucy joins the Gaunt expedition north into Canada to try to find her sister's killers, whom she believes to be Titus and Joel Kelso, hooligans related to Straw.
The Last Crossing focuses on several layers of conflict and tension. No one, except possibly Ayto, likes Addington, and his self-promotion is deeply resented. Lucy rejects Straw, who resents her attentions to Charles. Charles has only the slimmest hope of finding his brother alive and is fearful of delivering bad news to their father, a tyrannical railway magnate who loves only Simon. Potts misses the Indian wife and son who have abandoned him and is constantly torn between his white and Indian impulses. Meanwhile, the Indians blame the whites for infesting them with “white scabs,” their name for smallpox.
Vanderhaeghe's treatment of the West has earned him comparisons to Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. His sympathetic view of Indians and of those torn between two cultures indicates the possible influence of Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964) and The Return of Little Big Man (1999). The many coincidences in The Last Crossing may also owe a debt to Berger as well as to Charles Dickens. An account of Potts's background is said “to rival one of Mr. Charles Dickens's own novels, not only in its length, but as a chronicle of childhood hardship and ill-usage.” Vanderhaeghe's treatment of nature and violence and his presentation of ill-fated love recall Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain(1997).
The Last Crossing succeeds equally well as a realistic treatment of its settings (Victorian England as much as the Old West), as a character study, and as old-fashioned storytelling, with many surprising turns. While Vanderhaeghe offers page-turning plotting, his method is modern, from the flashback structure to alternating chapters from different points of view, some first-person and others omniscient. There are also flashbacks to Charles and Simon's days at Oxford, Addington's response to the death of their mother while giving birth to the twins, a disgraceful incident during an 1865 Irish riot in Addington's army days, Straw's experiences during the Civil War, Lucy's previous life in Tennessee, and several moments in Potts's complicated past. After wrapping up Charles's adventures in the New World, Vanderhaeghe returns to 1896 and another surprising plot twist.
The Last Crossing was a best-seller and award winner in Canada, and it is easy to see why. It has colorful, believable characters, humor, action, insight into the duality of human nature, frequently beautiful writing, and a little sex. In The Irish Times, Eileen Battersby observed, “At a time in which so many ’big’ novels are merely fake composites of...
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