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  • TITLE: The Last Crossing
  • AUTHOR: Guy Vanderhaeghe
  • AWARDS: Canada Reads competition

    Two brothers from the English privileged class of the latter 19th Century—Charles and Addington Gaunt—come to the American-Canadian plains of the upper Missouri seeking their missing, other brother—Charles' twin, Simon—who has been mesmerized by religious fanatics believing the Indians are God's Chosen Ones. The story is the journey, not its destination, as it splits in purpose like coulees on the Plains driven by the addition of a woman with a vengeance for her sister's murderers, an American frontier entrepreneur determined in love, and a young man searching his identity in the war between opposing societies. With this fragmentation, the novel builds like a compilation of journals from spotlighted characters as the author throws more voices to his multiple, first-person point-of-view mix, which is judiciously overseen by a third-person, omniscient technique. It is a brilliant and signature way to tell this story. Time jumps through unworthy tickings are easily employed, but without the pretentious, Tarantino-like warps that unfocus the reader into considering the stage over substance. More slyly, it separates out the characters that don't have an opportunity to voice their own peculiarities—specifically, the missing brother Simon , selfish and savage Addington, and any of the antagonists—with an authority over sympathy and control of dramatic timing. The novel is an ingenious manipulation of two character-driven triangles both dancing around their particular cognation of Love, and circumnavigated by the perfect representative of the two, clashing cultures—the half-breed Jerry Potts. Possibly, he is the idealized North American, the synthesis of British, American, and Indian cultures taking the pragmatic best and nullifying the exploitational worst with respect to all human beings and Nature. Or, as the journalist says at the end, “Potts is a mythical being—avatar of the old and the new” (McClelland & Stewart, Canada, ISBN 0771087373, c.2002,p.385).

    Even with all this precision, the adventure never slips to a brow-furrowing study in planned confusion or self-styled, authorial showiness. Contrarily, it reads like a best-seller but without the consumptive insult of pre-conceiving its audiences' intelligence. And furthermore, the writing style is fresh and uncongealed with “historic” words chosen more to justify research than the reader's enlightenment. Metaphors and descriptions are as spot-on as the dialogue, adding just the right dash of poetic verve when necessary.

    Indulge this rather lengthy following of a thunderstorm:


    I feel the temperature suddenly drop, see the grass start to thrash. There's more lightning running yellow, forked cracks in the sky. The clouds are on the boil. A water spout whirls up on the Milk River, spins like a shiny tin siphon, and suddenly is stamped flat.

    I pull off my hat, shove it under my haunches, sit firm on it. The wind shrieks, fills my jacket like it was a sail, drives a tumbleweed on to my chest, wrestles it off. Rain and wind and flying dust tear at me all at once, claw my face, shake me. I duck down, clutch the grass, rock back and forth as the storm roars and batters me. A terrible crash claps in my ears, a hot, blue-green light spurts in my eyes, cuts out, pulling down a blind. Leaning into the charging wind, grape-shot rain peppering my face, I hold on, howling like a child. Thunder covers my screams, but I feel them scraping up my windpipe.

    And then, as quickly as it came, the thunder passes, muttering, grousing off to the north and there's only a heavy rain trampling down my back. I hear what's left of my bellowing, a sickly lament, a low, monotonous drone. . .

    Bit by bit, the rains eases off, whimpering in the mud. I lift my face to the long prospect south. The sky is rinsed clean, a weak sun breaks on miles of wet plain patched with apple green, new penny copper, glints of silver. . . I keep telling myself fear made no other part of me break and run, only my voice did that.



    With the cadence of Mr. Vanderhaeghe's accomplished prose, a touchstone is revealed through its transcendence of time. And the epic determination to follow these characters through a non-stated epilogue decades past calculates the perfect, bittersweet finale to this tale, its era, and the nostalgia for once self-determined and more honorable times. Thematically, its end note rings just as true: in Italy, the fictional poet looks up the Spanish Steps before the Trinita dei Monti at his love haunting and asks, “is it not better to make the climb, whatever the outcome?” (p.391)



    © copyright 12/16/2006 by Larry Crawford

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