New Style, Old Hat
Since 2002, Canada’s public broadcaster, CBC Radio, has chosen five folks from the arts and journalism worlds to each pick one book by a fellow Canuck they feel should be read by the rest of the country. The panelists cover the pluses and minuses of each pick, and then systematically pick one book off each week until only one book remains. An effort to increase literacy in the country, it’s a homegrown Survivor meets the Oprah Book Club.
The Last Crossing is winner of Canada Reads 2004, and it didn’t really need the extra attention sales-wise since it has been a near permanent fixture of bestseller lists in the country since McClelland and Stewart first published it in September 2002. (It’s currently available in Canada in trade paperback for $23.) Even before being adorned with that nice little book club-like sticker on the front cover, Vanderhaeghe’s fourth and latest novel had won almost universally positive reviews from touted authors like Annie Proulx, not to mention a slew of minor, regional awards, including the Saskatchewan Book Awards for Fiction and Book of the Year.
Based on all this success, the US and UK finally were graced earlier this year with hardcover editions of The Last Crossing, and it’s safe to say that this is the book that will help launch Vanderhaeghe’s career outside of the Great White North. Atlantic Monthly Press has ordered up a first run of 35,000 hardcover copies, which is hardly Stephen King standards, but a real sign that a publisher has some confidence in the work of a virtually anonymous literary author.
The novel does deserve some amount of praise in that it is a well-crafted pseudo-Western, and one that takes fairly great risks with its narrative structure. However, assuming that the US and UK versions are the same as the Canadian one, some readers might get lost in the book’s plodding mid-section. Not helping is that The Last Crossing moves through some now pretty familiar, well-worn territory that recalls parts of Lonesome Dove, Legends Of The Fall and Dances With Wolves, let alone a few Canadian icons like Mowat and Lawrence.
Set in the early 1870s, The Last Crossing has two major intertwining story arcs. One concerns two English brothers searching for a third brother lost on the Canadian Prairies. The other involves an American woman, a wounded Civil War veteran and assorted hangers-on searching for two ranch hands that may or may not have murdered the woman’s young sister. Both parties eventually meet up and are led by a half-Scottish, half-Aboriginal scout, who has his share of personal ghosts haunting him.
The main thing working for Vanderhaeghe’s novel is its inventiveness: the novel flips between first and third-person narratives, between present tense and flashbacks. It’s an interesting post-modern experiment for a genre novel so rooted in history, and it’s to the author’s credit that each character’s voice is so individualistically unique through tone and diction that you almost don’t need identifiers when the book’s point-of-view switches.
However, this inventiveness also creates its share of problems, particularly since the characters aren’t the types you’d like to hang out with in a saloon for an extended amount of time. Sure, this isn’t your classic black-and-white, good-versus-evil tale of old pulp fiction, which is somewhat refreshing and the whole point of this exercise, but the men of Vanderhaeghe’s tale are either unlikable, arrogant louts or infective, drunken louts. And that’s when they’re not raping little girls, picking meaningless fights out on the open Plains or simply being irrelevant to the narrative, like those hangers-on.
Thanks to all the flipping around through different points-of-view, the reader really doesn’t understand what’s motivating them in their loutishness until perhaps the very end. One character even says, “It’s no concern of mine to be understood.” Believe it. There is an awful lot left unsaid for the reader here to figure out. Not helping are historical discourses in the book’s mid-section—including a lengthy Civil War flashback—that are nicely rendered, but feel mostly superfluous to the main thrust of the plot.
Without a single engaging character in this stew, it’s hard to find reasons to care about anything that happens to them. Intelligent readers might find small pleasures in putting the narrative puzzle pieces together or immersing themselves in the author’s attention to pure period ambience; brilliant readers will probably quickly move onto a book with direction and characters worth caring about.
If I’m right, it would be too bad, because there are some nice plot twists that start piling on about three-quarters in that somewhat redeem the past 300 pages for those with patience. However, it’s hard to truly embrace The Last Crossing without thinking of better books and movies that go over similar terrain.
Just like Oprah has her vested interests in promoting a certain style of literature, the CBC Radio panel appears to have picked a somewhat overlooked book with which everyone in the English half of the country would find some familiarity, plot-wise. In that regard, The Last Crossing is a fairly good introductory book with major flaws for someone who has never read any Can Lit. However, for those of us who had to suffer through Margaret Lawrence in high school, this book’s themes of isolation and survival will feel really old hat.
For the rest of the world, those looking for read Canadian work that goes into somewhat uncharted territory should check out this book (one that even Vanderhaeghe likes), this book or even this book as alternate choices. All three are edgy, sometimes funny books that are totally engaging and intelligent, and just so happen to be written by fairly young people. Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t that whom any book club should really be encouraging to read in the long run?
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