A brother's keepers

The dangerous search for a lost idealistic sibling in the American West

By

To Americans, a bestseller in Canada is like a tree falling in the forest. Unless it's written by Margaret Atwood, they don't hear it and it doesn't exist. A beautiful novel by Francis Itani followed that parochial rule last fall. No. 1 in Canada, "Deafening" barely made a sound on the other side of the border. This baffling literary disconnect between the world's two most connected nations is about to be tested again. Guy Vanderhaeghe's "The Last Crossing" was selected as one of the best books of the year by Canada's major newspapers. The Canadian Booksellers Association chose it as their favorite novel of 2002, and readers there have sent it to the top of the bestseller list. If there's any literary justice, any thirst for adventure, any love for a great Western, then "The Last Crossing" won't just cross the Canadian border, but shatter it.

With points of view that rotate among half a dozen characters, settings that jump from England to America to Canada, and time periods that slip back and forth across the 19th century, it sounds like an arduous journey (of course Canadians would like it), but part of Vanderhaeghe's genius is melding all these elements into an irresistible story.

Mr. Gaunt, a ruthless industrialist in England, has three sons who have disappointed him in different ways despite his efforts to mold them into great men. His eldest, Addington, pursued a promising military career until it was cut short by his rash cruelty. Charles insists on studying art, which is no way for a grown man to behave. And Simon lilts about in second-hand clothes like a cryptic mystic, reading romantic poetry and posing Socratic questions.

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The story begins with the discovery that Simon has disappeared somewhere in the American West while following a charlatan who planned to convert Indians. The minister's body has been found frozen and disemboweled (no converted Indians nearby), but Mr. Gaunt insists that Simon is alive, and he dispatches his remaining two sons to find him and bring him back to England.

For Addington, this assignment to the New World offers a welcomed return to command. Since his discharge for brutally quelling an Irish riot, he's been spiraling into dissipation and depravity (described here in disturbing detail). He arrives at Fort Benton, Mont., with a journalist in tow to record his brave adventures and begins assembling enough supplies to circle the globe.

Charles is not shocked by his elder brother's bragging, his presumption of command, or his constant need for praise. All these annoying traits he knew to expect. But what unsettles him is the sense that Addington has no real interest in finding their brother. The expedition, Charles worries, is a kind of lark, a chance to impress young ladies and hired hands with tales of bravery.

Just before they set off from Fort Benton, a young girl is found raped and murdered. Her older sister, Madge, prevails upon Addington to let her tag along with the search party in hopes of tracking down her sister's killers. And that, in turn, inspires a Bible-reading horse-trader to tag along in hopes of winning her heart.

Chief among this marvelous caravan of characters is Jerry Potts (based on the historical figure), a Saskatchewan "half-breed" who signs on as the party's reluctant guide. He remains impassive to Addington's attempts to impress or annoy him, but in Vanderhaeghe's narrative, we see the dark complexity of what really troubles Potts: his alienation from both cultures, the gulf between whites and Indians into which he's lost his wife and son.

Charles quickly emerges as the troubled conscience of the novel, a man drawn tight between threads of filial devotion, love, and hatred, tangled in his own contradictions.

He depends on Addington's command, even though it grates on his pride. He adores Simon's purity, but looks for ways to spoil it. He yearns for his father's approval, but when finally given the commission, snickers over plans to paint his portrait with defective oils.

In the backwoods of the American West, Charles finds the space to consider all these crosscurrents of his family life. Vanderhaeghe knows just how to tighten that peculiar vise of brotherly affection and competition, forcing Charles to confront the shame of jealousy and effete ambition. But for all its costs, Charles's studied caution nonetheless keeps him alive, safe from following Simon's holiness into oblivion or Addington's daring into madness.

On the spokes of this fantastic novel spin cowboys and Indians, gunfights and Civil War battles, romance and broken hearts, murder and revenge.

As the saloonkeeper remarks in frustration, "Everybody chasing after everybody else!" But the most arresting moments are quiet ones, tableaux that Vanderhaeghe designs with startling effect: Jerry Potts spying on the son he cannot touch, a village silenced by smallpox, Addington's naked body smeared with silver medicine.

With its bracing mixture of violence and spiritual yearning, "The Last Crossing" rides deep into the psychological territory of these desperate characters. Vanderhaeghe is a genius at distinguishing their various voices, emanating from entirely different cultures, some already doomed despite a last moment of glory. Their alternating points of view, puzzle pieces forced together by the rough hand of history, create a jagged mosaic of spectacular change.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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