The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Revenge, Wild West style
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The Independent Culture

Sometimes you need to spice up your reading list with a rollicking good yarn, and if the American West puts the wheels on your wagon then this well-researched, carefully plotted adventure could be for you. Aloysius Dooley, a saloon owner, Lucy Stoveall, the local beauty, and the wonderfully named Custis Straw, a self-made man, live in a town "full of drifters, riverboat men, trappers, muleskinners, bullwhackers... sap-green cowboys and whores". They are about to head into the Wild West: Lucy seeks the men who murdered her younger sister, Custis will travel as her guide and protector, and Aloysius is along for the ride.

It is the late 19th century, and back in England, the well-to-do Gaunt family - in particular, the twins Charles and Addington - are shocked by the disappearance of their brother, Simon. Charles discovers that his younger brother, an Oxford-educated romantic, has fled to the American West to live with an Indian tribe. Charles and Addington go in search of their gullible brother, first joining up with the convoy of Custis Straw.

This motley crew may seem unlikely, but all doubts are soon dismissed by a neat authorial device. Vanderhaeghe rotates the narrative perspective between the first-person accounts of Custis Straw, Charles Gaunt, Lucy, and even Aloysius. Straw's perspective is the most compelling; it's alive with quick wit and Southern slang, and he emerges as the book's strongest character. Nicely balanced against Straw's local knowledge and ribaldry is Charles Gaunt's slightly sententious narration. Lucy is the go-between. Loved by both men, she remains a character devoted to her cause (vengeance), and she writes simply, eloquently of the events as they unfold.

And, of course, there is no shortage of events: a London Rules fistfight (very bloody), a disagreement with a bear (even bloodier), an outbreak of smallpox, the constant tensions within the group, and between the group and the native Indians. There is much drinking, shooting, squabbling beneath the stars, offset by the relationship developing between Charles and Lucy, shrewdly recounted by both in their respective narrations. Vanderhaeghe is good at simple descriptions as he renders the landscape and sky, the labours of transit, as well as the language and customs of the American West.

Despite the extensive research - Indian tribes and traditions, trade routes, pioneers - Vanderhaeghe does not let the material get the better of him, and the switching perspectives keep everyone's story in check. Only the pressure of the denouement seems to lead us towards melodrama. Then again, after such a long journey, you want something extraordinary to happen, don't you?

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