Fiction - Go west

The Last Crossing

Guy Vanderhaeghe <em>Little, Brown, 480pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0316726176

Guy Vanderhaeghe returns to territory explored in his previous novel, The Englishman's Boy - the story of a boy who joins a group of wolf hunters in the Canadian-American Wild West searching for the Assiniboine Indians who stole their horses. In this new book, the Englishmen Charles and Addington Gaunt are sent to the West by their father to find Charles's twin, Simon, last heard of in Fort Benton, Montana in the company of a charlatan cleric who believes that the American Indians are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Addington, a syphilitic bully with an eye on posterity, engages an American newspaperman, Caleb Ayto, to chronicle their adventure. Charles meanwhile hires the half-Native American and half-Scots "dipsomaniac frontiersman" Jerry Potts, a real figure from history, as their guide. They are accompanied by Lucy Stoveall, searching for a couple of illiterate wranglers whom she suspects of murdering her sister, and Custis Straw, a civil war veteran who lusts after Lucy.

This improbable party heads north towards Saskatchewan, its progress undone by fraternal animus, unlikely romance and racial incomprehension. Potts thinks Addington's head has been turned by thoughts of the heroic tale Ayto will tell, and refuses to accompany him when he takes a detour into the Sand Hills, a kind of Native American burial ground.

Potts, a "divided spirit" whose mixed blood imposes on him the burden of saving white men from themselves, carries much of the novel's intellectual weight. Through his relationship with Addington, Vanderhaeghe explores once again the fuzzy line between history and myth-making. The wisdom of the natives is not romanticised, however. Simon's Rousseauan belief in their nobility is shown to be as unreliable as the claims of the egregious reverend.

The narrative, alternating between first and third persons, is divided between all the characters - even the most minor. Each of these voices is fully and carefully inhabited. There is richness in the writing, too, and Custis's recollection of a civil war battle is almost oppressively real.

All this is carefully controlled; at no point do you wonder whether Vanderhaeghe has not been carried away by the prodigality of his character-making. His book is certainly unusually populous, but it is also disciplined. The plotting is ingenious and delivers a finale that is both credible and unexpected.

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