Review: The Last Crossing, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe was a tougher read for me. Now, I don’t know whether it was because I was busy and didn’t have a chance to pick it up more than I normally would, but I find even in that case if I’m enjoying a book enough, I’ll make time for it. I think when you’re not reading books that you have explicitly chosen, they can differ so greatly from one another that it’s hard to go from one voice to another right away. I had just finished Clara Callan which was written so simply, so casually and so personally that I was in a completely different head space going in to The Last Crossing. Yes, both books have different narrators, but Vanderhaeghe’s language is much more archaic and it started to… feel like work to read it. It wasn’t every voice, however, just who I would describe as the main character, Charles Gaunt.

Let me give you a brief synopsis of the story. There are three brothers: Charles, a disillusioned artist, Simon, a saintly intellect, and Addington Gaunt, a disgraced military captain, who hail from England. Charles and Simon are twins, and are very close growing up. As the years go by, however, Simon meets a Cree man in England and he mysteriously starts to change. He is more secretive, he spends a lot of time at school and he starts to drift away from Charles. Charles becomes concerned, and approaches the situation in the wrong way. They have a row, and Simon decides to leave England for “the New World” with a very close friend of his, a priest. This back story is presented throughout the novel, but the book itself opens with Simon and the priest riding through a cold winter night and getting lost. The next we hear of Simon is that he is missing. Looks like a quest is in store! It is.

Charles is sent to Fort Benton on the edge of the Montana frontier to meet up with his obnoxious, entitled and selfish brother Addington where a caravan of characters is put together: Addington’s man servant who is writing a “novel” about Addington and his exploits, Civil War veteran Custis Straw, his simple-minded friend and barkeep Aloysius Dooley, Lucy Stoveall, whose sister was recently, and mysteriously murdered, and is out to seek revenge, and lastly Jerry Potts who is part Blackfoot, part Scot to guide them North. This potpourris of characters sets off to where Simon was last seen, although the members of the party are all heading North for different reasons. There’s a love triangle, racism, disease, poisoning, adventure, revenge… sounds like the makings of an epic tale, right? So why didn’t I like it?

CBC’s Canada Reads picked this novel as the winner of the debates in 2004. I don’t see it. I think I’d like to listen to the debates. This novel has all the makings of exactly the sort of story I would like, yet I was never really immersed in it. I think it was the language used. The novel is written from every character’s perspective at some point and Vanderhaeghe goes above and beyond what I’ve seen authors do before, and he writes with starkly different voices. It’s part Ebonics, part vocabulary; the novel has clearly been meticulously researched. Now this is pretty contradictory for me to say, as I love language, but the voice of Charles Gaunt was just too hard to read. Vanderhaeghe has mastered the language of the time. So much so, that I had to look up words every time Charles was narrating. Which words, you might ask? Fear not. I kept a record:

pusillanimity: lack of courage

iconoclast: a destroyer of religious images or sacred objects

evinces: proves

peregrinations: an extensive voyage

peroration: conclusion

obdurately: unmovable

destriers: war horse

pugilistic: apt to fight (pugilism = boxing)

imprecations: a spoken curse

profligacy: reckless extravagance

salubrious: health-giving; healthy

parlous: full of danger or uncertainty; precarious

garrulous: excessively talkative, esp. on trivial matters

encomiums: a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly

So if you know those words, and it’s just me, then well done you, but seriously? I don’t think there are many readers that would go through those passages knowing what those words meant. I suppose that I could have just skipped over them, but how could I when a word like “imprecations” is such a tasty word to pronounce? I simply had to know what it meant.

No turn downs in this book (other than the words I had to look up, of course). It was… good. I am glad I read it, but I wouldn’t readily recommend it to a fellow reader unless they told me they liked westerns, or novels that exemplified certain time periods. It was well written, just not for me. On that same token, I don’t think it was a good choice for the whole of Canada to read, either. If you have read it, and enjoyed it, I would love to hear why. I think I could be swayed to agree.

P.S. I recently finished Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden which was, without a doubt, the best book I read in 2011. Stay tuned for the review that will be posted later this Saturday. If you haven’t read this book, go buy it. Like, now.


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