An ambitious sixth outing from the Saskatchewan author who has twice won Canada’s Governor General’s Award (for Man Descending, 1985, and The Englishman’s Boy, 1997).
The search for a missing brother adds a mythic dimension to Vanderhaeghe’s complex plot, initiated by the mission imposed by wealthy Victorian industrialist Henry Gaunt on his sons Charles, a painter of little accomplishment and no renown, and Addington, a reckless former soldier best remembered for his considerable responsibility for a massacre of Irish “rabble.” The brothers are to scour the American and Canadian northwestern territories (the year is 1871) and locate Charles’s twin Simon, who has disappeared during his mission accompanying Reverend Obadiah Witherspoon, who means to convert “savages” to Christianity. Once the Gaunts are thus engaged, the author introduces his lusty, raucous other major characters—all, in their own ways, seekers—many of whom function also as narrators. There’s fur and whiskey to be traded, land to be seized, and stories to be told, by such wanderers as: Civil War veteran Custis Straw, resourceful American journalist Caleb Ayto, and devious tavernkeeper Aloysius Dooley, plucky Lucy Stoveall, who’s determined to avenge the murder of her young sister Madge, and—the story’s most haunting character—half-breed guide Jerry Potts (a real historical figure), who crystallizes in his own nature and history the experiences common to them all, of division, alienation, and rootlessness. There’s an almost Platonic articulation of divisions and mirrorings thus working among Vanderhaeghe’s gallery of opportunists and misfits—who are nevertheless brought unforgettably to life by this consistently surprising narrative’s deft re-creation of its remote milieu. The novel’s expanse is chronological as well, reaching back to the Gaunt twins’ youth in which they shared their dreams and sensed their differences, and forward to Charles’s later meditations on how his great adventure has altered, as well as validated, his life.
Sumptuously imagined and fashioned with a master craftsman’s attentiveness and finesse. Brilliant work.