A Cruel Separation
- Guy Vanderhaeghe (Author)
The Last Crossing. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gordon Bölling
Guy Vanderhaeghe dedicates his most recent publication to "all those local historians who keep the particulars of our past alive." Although not a writer of history in the academic sense, Vanderhaeghe clearly feels a sense of kinship to Canadian historians. The author holds an M.A. in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and his historical fiction is meticulously researched. In The Last Crossing, he returns to the American and Canadian West of the 1870s, a historical period which also served as the setting for The Englishman’s Boy (1996), which focused on the Cypress Hill Massacre of 1873 and its wilful distortion by Hollywood’s film industry. Framed by chapters set in 1896 England, The Last Crossing looks back upon an epic journey through Montana and the south-western Canadian prairie.
A quarter of a century after his expedition to the New World, the English painter Charles Gaunt receives a newspaper clipping informing him of the demise of his former guide and interpreter Jerry Potts. This piece of news takes us back to 1871 when Gaunt and his older brother Addington travel to the North American West in search of Charles’s twin brother Simon. However, Addington, a former military officer, is primarily interested in turning his experiences into a book. Charles, by contrast, is plagued by Simon’s uncertain fate and in moments of despair regards himself as the "survivor of the cruellest separation," twins "who shared a womb torn from one another in the world." Although Gaunt is at the centre of The Last Crossing, other characters are equally important. Other members of the expedition, among them his lover Lucy Stoveall, the American Civil War veteran Custis Straw, and Straw’s companion Aloysius Dooley, serve as narrators. This multiplicity of voices is complemented by an omniscient narrator. As the reader follows the search party’s route through the American and Canadian West, The Last Crossing gradually reveals each character’s past.
One of the most complex figures in the novel is the scout Jerry Potts, a half-breed of Scottish and Blackfoot descent. As a mediator between Natives and Canadian government officials, the historical Jerry Potts, whose biography has fascinated Vanderhaeghe since his childhood, played a decisive, though mostly unacknowledged, role. A drifter between two worlds, he is known to Native people as Bear Child. Jerry Potts’s close links to the Blackfoot and his intimate knowledge of the geography of the Canadian West prove to be indispensable to white society, but his multiple identities lead to his estrangement from his Crow wife Mary and their son Mitchell.
Among the many strengths of The Last Crossing, its attention to historical detail deserves special mention. Using extensive research, Vanderhaeghe creates scenes that will stay with the reader for a long time. Among these are Charles Gaunt’s encounter with a Métis train of Red River carts on its way to Fort Edmonton, Custis Straw’s haunting memories of the American Civil War, and the account of the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. The Last Crossing has everything a reader could ask for.
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MLA: Bölling, Gordon. A Cruel Separation. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #180 (Spring 2004), (Montgomery, Carson, Bissoondath, Goodridge). (pg. 184 - 185)
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