The Last Crossing, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

A Boy's Own tale of the Canadian west
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The Independent Culture

When the second-rate portrait painter and dried-up bachelor Charlie Gaunt publishes a book of love poems in the closing years of the 19th century, the curiosity of London society is aroused. Speculation about the object of his passions is rife, and he is beset by invitations.

One evening he discovers an altogether different invitation among the copperplate summonses: an envelope from Canada contains an obituary snipped from a Canadian newspaper, together with an intriguing note from a long-forgotten acquaintance: "There is something you must know... I beg you to come soon. Signed, Custis Straw."

These items jolt his memory, and he finds himself revisiting the events of a quarter-century back, when he had last crossed the Atlantic. The action-packed story that follows, a great drama of survival, far exceeds the wildest fantasies that London's genteel drawing rooms could have envisaged.

Simon Gaunt, disciple of the fanatical Reverend Obadiah Witherspoon, has disappeared in the Canadian west. His twin, Charles, and elder brother, the violent Addington, are sent by their father to find him. They round up a posse to help them in their quest. Historical figures like Jerry Potts - half-Blackfoot, half-Scottish scout - join the parody of a sycophantic hack, Caleb Ayto, enlisted to glorify the expedition; Lucy Stoveall, who travels in the hope of avenging her sister's murder; her admirer, the Civil War veteran Custis Straw; a bar-keeper friend of his and his disreputable kinsfolk and liquor traders, the Kelso brothers. Each one journeys in pursuit of his or her own demons, and most contribute to the lively immediacy of the narrative by taking turns to tell the story.

What is that story? Chase after chase across a wild and dangerous landscape. This is a veritable Boy's Own tale of derring-do, rewritten for modern sensibilities. We are treated to all the requisite violence, rape, animal-slaying, hard-drinking and gun-slinging, but parodied, spun and ultimately sanitised by a political correctness that will doubtless render it acceptable for a Canadian government film budget. There is an Indian village wiped out by smallpox, a bear hunt in which the bear slays the hunter, three constipated Englishmen, all stereotypes, and in his own strange way the very model of a Boy's Own hero.

When Simon Gaunt is miraculously found alive among the Indians, the comic rescue that ensues would have flabbergasted Victorian England. Not only does he not want to be rescued, but the Indians are extremely eager to be shot of him. It is hard to care overmuch about the fate of any character, and this renders the final twist in this loud, lively tornado of a story neither especially surprising nor moving.

What is truly memorable, though, is the powerfully evoked landscape. In a sprawling story that freely blends real and fictional characters and events, it is the vividness of Guy Vanderhaeghe's vast and terrifying terrain that gives the many different journeys their epic scale and imaginative cohesion.