Saturday, February 04, 2006

Review: "The Last Crossing", by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Read it: For Canadian Lit.

The Last Crossing started out as something really straightforward, but then spiralled off into another story entirely. It started out as a suspenseful murder mystery/quest, then ended up as a sad reflection of fatherhood, brotherhood, and the eventual destruction of the livelihoods of Canada's First Nations.
In Fort Benton, abused-and-abandoned wife Lucy Stoveall and horse-dealer Custis Straw are shaken by the gruesome rape and murder of Lucy's little sister Madge. Lucy is convinced that Titus and Joel Kelso, two ne'er-do-well brothers, are the perpetrators, and makes it her mission to track them down and get revenge.

When two brothers from England, cruel Addington and weak-willed Charles Gaunt, arrive on a quest to find their lost brother Simon, she teams up with them to leave Fort Benton and hopefully find Titus and Joel on the way. Custis, who is in love with Lucy, follows, and the entire group is reluctantly guided by half-Indian, half-Scottish Jerry Potts.

While the quest for Simon, Titus, and Joel is certainly significant to the story, the book is drawn together by the characters that inhabit the story, and the changes they undergo, rather than the destination/goal they originally set out for. Lucy, abandoned by her abusive husband and now deprived of her last vestige of family, has to find something to live for. Charles, an initially spineless but earnest young man, finds himself in an uncertain place in life - as a mediocre artist, the only thing that currently offers him any drive is the quest for twin Simon, and to redeem himself in his brother's eyes. Jerry Potts is a border-line alcoholic (but then again, nearly everyone in this novel is one as well) who has found himself eternally divided between his First Nation and white heritages.

Addington, on the other hand, is a repulsive, impulsive, hyper-masculine creation who lives to hunt, fight, drink, screw, and eat. He already believes Simon dead, and is only leading the expedition to experience fresh air and adventure, and hopefully find a cure for his nagging venereal disease, and while he isn't redeemed at the end, we do become more enlightened of the darker, inner recesses of his nature.

Eventually, both goals are ambiguously fulfilled. The murder of Madge is solved, indirectly, but it comes as a complete surprise and actually had me thumbing backwards through the pages to see if the timeline of it fit. But by the end of the novel, it becomes clear that finding Simon and the person who murdered Madge was never the point. I hate to resort to this cliche, but in this book, the destination wasn't so much the heart of the story as the journey itself. To me, it appeared to be more of a study of characters under stress than a quest or an adventure.

I enjoyed the reading of it, but it didn't evoke any particular emotions in me. Fort Edmonton gets a location cameo, and Calgary has a brief mention, and we are treated to marvelous descriptions of rugged Canadian scenery, but the hills and valleys of the human mind are more closely examined here.

1 comment:

  1. I would agree with most of your description of the book, but personally I considered Addignton a suspect since everybody else was denying the ownership of the belt, including the Kelso brothers. I found the ending a bit on the "blah" side, since everyone sort of gets what they were looking for, but no one is particulary happy, not even Custis.