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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In this sweeping panorama of the US and Canadian West in the post–Civil War era, Guy Vanderhaeghe creates a diverse array of characters who seek a meaningful life in the outposts of civilization. While the protagonist, Charles Gaunt, in many ways begins as a reluctant participant in the frontier adventure, his motivation changes from filial duty to romantic attachment to a woman, and he ultimately succumbs to the pull that the West exerts. The novel centers on Euro-American experiences but includes a handful of Native American and mixed-race characters who exemplify some of the racial dilemmas engendered by Manifest Destiny.

The human relationships among the characters are at the novel's core, however, as each of them tries to make sense of their rapidly changing society. For Charles and his brother Simon, their Oxford education little prepared them for the rigors of American frontier life. Simon's idealism clouded his vision of others' less-lofty motivations and left no room for appreciation or even acceptance of the validity of Native American belief systems as he single-mindedly pursued his goal of saving souls through Christian conversion. In contrast, the debauched life their brother Addington lived stands for the spiritual corruption of the Old World, which leaves him beyond salvation.

The radical reshaping of the United States in the years following the Civil War provides the framework for the author's plot development. The Americans and some European migrants are involved in diverse ways with the aggressive pacification and settlement of the areas west of the Mississippi. These include personal relationships between newcomers and Native Americans; the difficulty of joining two racial and cultural worlds is embodied in the biracial Potts and his failed marriage to a Native woman. For the female characters, frontier life also offers a promise of new beginnings, with both dangers and opportunities, as shown in the diverging situations of the Stoveall sisters—as Madge loses her life, while Lucy proves her mettle.

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