The Last Crossing

Paperback | September 23, 2003

byGuy Vanderhaeghe

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Set in the second half of the nineteenth century, in the American and Canadian West and in Victorian England, The Last Crossing is a sweeping tale of interwoven lives and stories

Charles and Addington Gaunt must find their brother Simon, who has gone missing in the wilds of the American West. Charles, a disillusioned artist, and Addington, a disgraced military captain, enlist the services of a guide to lead them on their journey across a difficult and unknown landscape. This is the enigmatic Jerry Potts, half Blackfoot, half Scottish, who suffers his own painful past. The party grows to include Caleb Ayto, a sycophantic American journalist, and Lucy Stoveall, a wise and beautiful woman who travels in the hope of avenging her sister’s vicious murder. Later, the group is joined by Custis Straw, a Civil War veteran searching for salvation, and Custis’s friend and protector Aloysius Dooley, a saloon-keeper. This unlikely posse becomes entangled in an unfolding drama that forces each person to come to terms with his own demons.

The Last Crossing
contains many haunting scenes – among them, a bear hunt at dawn, the meeting of a Métis caravan, the discovery of an Indian village decimated by smallpox, a sharpshooter’s devastating annihilation of his prey, a young boy’s last memory of his mother. Vanderhaeghe links the hallowed colleges of Oxford and the pleasure houses of London to the treacherous Montana plains; and the rough trading posts of the Canadian wilderness to the heart of Indian folklore. At the novel’s centre is an unusual and moving love story.

The Last Crossing is Guy Vanderhaeghe’s most powerful novel to date. It is a novel of harshness and redemption, an epic masterpiece, rich with unforgettable characters and vividly described events, that solidifies his place as one of Canada’s premier storytellers.

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From the Publisher

Set in the second half of the nineteenth century, in the American and Canadian West and in Victorian England, The Last Crossing is a sweeping tale of interwoven lives and stories Charles and Addington Gaunt must find their brother Simon, who has gone missing in the wilds of the American West. Charles, a disillusioned artist, and Adding...

Guy Vanderhaeghe was born in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, in 1951. He is the author of four novels, My Present Age (1984), Homesick (1989), co-winner of the City of Toronto Book Award, The Englishman’s Boy (1996), winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Saskatchewan Book Awards for Fiction and for Best Book of the Year, ...

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Format:PaperbackPublished:September 23, 2003Publisher:McClelland & StewartLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0771087381

ISBN - 13:9780771087387

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Bookclub Guide

1. The Last Crossing is set in the late nineteenth century, mostly in the American and Canadian west, with some scenes in England. We learn that the story unfolds in, and around, 1871 [p 11]. Yet some sections of the novel occur before this date, as with the section, narrated by Custis, about his experiences during the Civil War [pp 261-72]. Why does Vanderhaeghe cut back and forth between geographical locations and different times? Why does he choose to insert prior information through loops of memory? Why does he set his novel in this historical period?2. Characters’ names draw attention to themselves. Stoveall, Straw, Potts, and Gaunt resonate with meaning beyond proper names. Potts thinks that “nothing exists for white men unless they give it a name in their own language” [p 8]. Later, Potts broods on his multiple names, including Bear Child and Mr. Moses [p 303]. Do names define character? If so, why do some characters have multiple names?3. Simon Gaunt absconds to the west because he believes he can convert North American natives to spiritual enlightenment that is vaguely Christian and vaguely poetic in nature. Should we interpret Simon’s mission as misguided, historically informed, obstinate, ethically suspect, or psychologically deluded? Moreover, should we understand Simon’s relation to the bote as an expression of his spirituality or as an expression of his sexuality?4. Songs dot The Last Crossing. Addington Gaunt sings about prostitutes in the Burlington Arcade [p 26]. The Kelso brothers taunt Lucy and Madge by singing “Buffalo girls” [p 189]. Charles remembers a ribald song about the king and queen [p 201]. A kissing song is sung during the dance at Fort Edmonton [p 290] and, afterwards, Addington sings a song about buffalo in a monotonous voice [p 294]. Why does Vanderhaeghe include these songs? Why do these songs often express demeaning sentiments–usually about women?5. Charles fears his father and yet writes to him in order to appease him. He claims that he cannot escape the “golden cage” [p 201] created for him by his father. Yet Henry Gaunt, after his stroke, turns out to be a relatively tame, if paranoid, old man. Does the power of the father exist in the minds of the sons? How does Jerry Potts’s relation to his three white fathers parallel Charles’s relation to his father? And how does Potts’s relation to his son Mitchell parallel Charles’s belated understanding that he too is a father? In what senses is The Last Crossing about the relation of fathers and sons?6. Custis Straw thinks about the Bible frequently. He claims he first read the Bible “‘to make myself believe every single word was true. The second time I read it to satisfy myself it was all a lie. Now I read it to weigh both sides, and find some truth’” [p 260]. Often he meditates on Moses leading his people out of tyranny and into the Promised Land. How do Biblical stories, and especially tales about Moses, underlie and inform The Last Crossing? Does the Bible offer truthful or mythic stories to Custis’ imagination? How does Potts’s version of Moses and Pharoah, whom he mistakenly calls Far Away [pp 187-88], alter interpretation of the Mosaic story?7. Simon and Charles are twins. Why does Vanderhaeghe choose to represent the brothers as twins? Why does one twin flee the other? Why is one a mystic and one a painter? Why does Simon resist all of Charles’s importunate demands to return to England? How does the motif of twins reflect on Potts’s native and white duality? Why does Charles call himself the “left twin” [p 157]?8. Narration frequently breaks into first-person monologues, heralded by an italicized name: Charles, Lucy, Custis. For example, Charles narrates chapter 5 [pp 29-39], whereas Custis narrates the opening of chapter 6 [pp 40-45]. While giving access to specific memories and versions of events, this style of narrative also might omit certain kinds of information. What is omitted? Why does Vanderhaeghe choose to narrate Jerry Potts’s sections in third-person indirect discourse rather than in first-person, testimonial style?9. Several letters are, or are not, delivered in the course of The Last Crossing. Custis writes to Charles. Charles sends reports to his father. Charles writes to Lucy. Why do people choose to communicate through letters, as when Charles, heading back to England, sends a letter to Lucy via Custis [pp 363-65]? What does Aloysius Dooley’s letter reveal that his first-person narratives do not reveal [pp 375-76]? What motivates characters to write rather than speak or narrate? Why does Vanderhaeghe include letters in The Last Crossing?10. Why do so many women vanish in The Last Crossing? Pearl, a whore, disappears [pp 26-27]. Madge dies. Eunice Gaunt dies in childbirth [p 33]. Mary, taking Mitchell with her, leaves Jerry. Why do so few of the relations between men and women work out well in the novel? Why must Lucy give birth to her daughter outside of Charles’s and the reader’s knowledge?11. A lot of characters die in The Last Crossing: Addington Gaunt, Henry Gaunt, Jerry Potts, Titus Kelso, Custis Straw, Blackfoot warriors, Civil War soldiers. Why are some deaths narrated and some not? What point of view is adopted to narrate death, in, for instance, the grizzly bear’s attack on Addington? Why do characters want to sup with the dead [p 229]?12. The Last Crossing depicts several battle scenes: Custis fights in the Civil War; the Cree and the Blackfoot battle each other; Addington boxes with Custis; Custis shoots Titus in his whisky cave. How do these battles reflect on each other? What are the battles about? What is won or lost by fighting?13. Many characters fall ill in this novel and use different sorts of medicine. Straw suffers from migraines (or “megrim”), and has a lengthy, undiagnosed illness. Addington has tertiary syphilis. How does Dr. Bengough’s medicine differ from Potts’s medicine bag? Are illnesses only of the body? Why does Custis call the frontier between the American west and the British colonies the “Medicine Line” [p 147]?14. Why does Aloysius Dooley, hotel proprietor, demonstrate such loyalty and friendship to Custis Straw? What binds the two characters together?15. Epic narratives often deploy common motifs, such as the founding of a city or nation, battles, visits to the underworld. In what ways is The Last Crossing an epic? If it is an epic, how does it reflect on the founding of a nation?16. What does the title of the novel refer to? What is the last crossing? What is crossed? Why is the crossing the last one?17. The Last Crossing contains tall tales, including the preposterous, amusing (and in reality debatedly authentic) story about John Rowand, the tyrant who commanded Fort Edmonton for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Rowand’s body, allegedly pickled in rum, crosses the Atlantic twice before it is buried in Quebec [p 284]. Simon, as a follower of Reverend Witherspoon, believes another sort of tall tale. Are any of the tales in this novel not tall? What effects does exaggeration create? What actions do tall tales instigate? Does the tallness of a tale mitigate its credibility or authenticity? Why does Custis, referring to drifters cast up after the Civil War, mention “pitiful stories way too big for their sorry selves” [p 41]?18. Why do so many people chase each other in The Last Crossing? Lucy pursues the Kelso brothers, because she thinks they have murdered Madge. Charles chases Simon. Custis chases Lucy. Aloysius follows Custis. Aloysius calls this sequence “a game of fox and hounds” [p 120]. Why does Vanderhaeghe structure this novel around a series of displacements and chases? Why do people bestir themselves in order to chase others? How does Simon’s refusal to return to London call the bluff of the chase? Who does or does not leave a trail? Why are so many Canadian novels about chasing others through the untamed wilderness?19. Would Canada exist without trading companies and the British military? How does Vanderhaeghe write Canadian history in The Last Crossing, specifically the history of the west? Why does he draw attention to Ayto’s writing up of Addington’s exploits, as well as Charles’s drawing of Addington in military postures? Is military history the real history of Canada, or does history lie beyond the military? More specifically, how does Addington’s bloodthirsty hacking down of Irish peasants [p 23] affect the representation of the British military?20. Charles continues to draw and paint portraits, yet publishes a volume of love poetry to some acclaim. How does this fulfil, or deny, Simon’s suggestion that Charles yearns for love [p 155], and, by extension, that Charles must learn about love in order to draw? Why does Charles switch from painting to poetry, as different artistic pursuits, in his middle age?21. Wild West tales take for granted that constitutional forms of justice and law do not hold sway in frontier towns. Vigilante justice or revenge takes precedence over legislation and jurisprudence. Judge Daniels imprisons Custis without a writ of habeas corpus [pp 44-45]. Later, Custis shoots Titus Kelso, an administration of justice performed out of self-defence, but a form of justice that also seems to avenge Madge's death. How does Vanderhaeghe represent justice in The Last Crossing? Does justice differ according to race? Whereas Addington proves to be Madge’s murderer, he receives no legal meting out of justice, but justice of a different sort. Is this justice really just?22. Charles Gaunt and Ayto debate whether the pen is mightier than the sword [pp 142-43]. Which is mightier, according to evidence proffered in The Last Crossing?23. Simon suffers from “romanticism” [p 153]. How does his romanticism–the reading of Rousseau and Arnold, the taking of moonlit walks from Oxford to London–lead him astray? Why does Vanderhaeghe not tell us exactly what becomes of Simon? Is romanticism, as an ideology, really so destructive?24. Jerry Potts curses comically in English [p 231]. Custis, whose name half suggests some kind of curse, swears that his first wife Louella would have died cussing him if she had had the voice to do so [p 261]. What is a curse? Why is a curse formed in language? Are some characters cursed in the novel and others not? Can anything remedy a curse?25. Some characters have dreams or visions in The Last Crossing. Lucy dreams about Charles [p 193], as well as a dog [p 318]. Addington sees his mother in a vision [p 308]. Should we interpret these dreams and visions as delusions or as prophesies? Do they lead characters astray or guide them to just action?26. Several characters in The Last Crossing have a hybrid or conjoined identity. Potts is half-native and half-Scottish. The Sutherland boys are likewise half-white and half-native. Aloysius is an Irish-American. Simon and Charles have a mixed identity because they are twins and because they travel to North America. Is identity ever free of hybridity? Who suffers for living between cultures, languages, and identities?

Editorial Reviews

“Rarely are today’s hungry readers invited to such a feast of a book.…Here are brilliant writing, picaresque adventure, plot twists, history and studies of human nature. . . . There are few writers who can encapsulate a character in a single sentence, turn a phrase or manipulate a metaphor as brilliantly as Vanderhaeghe.…The Last Crossing deserves honours and the widest readership. Guy Vanderhaeghe, one of North America’s best writers, is at the top of his form.”–Annie Proulx, Globe and Mail“The Last Crossing is both a Canadian classic and a rousing adventure.…A tremendous achievement of imagination, capturing the West in all its grandeur. With its intricate layering of stories, constant surprises, unforgettable scenes and characters and dramatic landscape, Vanderhaeghe’s saga is certain to resonate with readers long after they’ve finished the book.”–Calgary Herald“A tour de force. Wonderfully written, suspenseful and totally absorbing, this novel must be [Vanderhaeghe’s] most powerful to date. . . . Many voices take up Vanderhaeghe’s twisting tale and its criss-cross pattern is skillfully woven into a chronicle of singular style and impressive power. This book is a remarkable achievement, a page-turner not only of epic proportions but of exceptional literary merit.…A book impossible to set aside.”–London Free Press“The Last Crossing is truly Vanderhaeghe’s masterpiece.…The variety of voices, settings and action evokes an almost inebriated response from the reader whose imagination is sparked to overflowing by such abundance.…Vanderhaeghe’s ability to hold in his imagination all of these characters and all of this vast narrative with its complexity of tensions and intensity of meaning, is testament to the creative genius of this writer and his passionate commitment to his craft.”–Books in Canada“The Last Crossing is an enormously rich and complex work, spanning time and place. It is an amazingly good story, and it both creates and satisfies a profound emotional need in readers. Thank you, Guy Vanderhaeghe.”–Edmonton Journal“The Last Crossing is Vanderhaeghe’s masterpiece.…The novel is so consistently vivid, the storytelling so magnificent.…What Vanderhaeghe is responding to, what he is writing about – albeit in a story that takes place more than a hundred years ago – is very much our present.…The Last Crossing is also a terrific entertainment. . . . In Vanderhaeghe’s book something approaching perfection is achieved. Scene follows scene described with such dexterity and skill that I was left, time and again, astonished.…Here is a story that you can hear, see, smell, as you read it. The Last Crossing is a novel with a broad canvas, but of intimately handled physical detail. The suspense is unflagging, its several voices distinct. Not once does Vanderhaeghe put a foot wrong.” –Noah Richer, National Post“[A] brilliant new novel.…The Last Crossing is one of those rarities: a page-turner that also bears the graceful prose and layered meanings of great literature.”–Maclean’s“The best Canadian book I’ve read this year is Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing.…Vanderhaeghe’s is an epic novel, but without the sometimes baggy sprawl the use of that word can connote; he maintains almost pitch-perfect control over five distinct narrative voices. If ‘excellence’ means anything, this novel is excellent.”–Martin Levin, Globe and Mail“The most astounding, unforgettable, literary journey ever penned in Canada about the 19th-century prairie.…The Last Crossing is a tale of lust, murder, revenge, shock and survival. But this is no pulp fiction. It is an arresting work of art more in the vein of Leo Tolstoy or Charles Dickens.…Each character is crafted with the care and precision of a Michelangelo sculpture. The plot grabs you in such a fierce, determined way that it is impossible, once started, to set the book aside.…In the end, The Last Crossing is nothing less than the first great novel about Canada’s Old West.”–Ottawa Citizen“The Last Crossing is an absolutely wonderful book, the kind of literature that reminds other writers of why they want to create, and convinces readers the world is a vast and mythic enterprise, larger than our individual crises or triumphs.…[Vanderhaeghe crosses] histories, borders and story lines with remarkable virtuosity.…It is a joy to read, to go through this wild world with a writer who has fully stretched out over a landscape big enough to accommodate his stride.”–National Post “When he arms his characters with speech – internal or external, uttered or unuttered – the reader feels the pulse of life.…The strongest and strangest and most compelling of Vanderhaeghe’s novels.”–Toronto Star“There’s no putting the book down.…Masterful.”–Montreal Gazette“The Last Crosssing’s epic sweep, historical scope, unforgettable characters, thematic complexity, compelling narrative and mythic underpinnings make it a hugely satisfying read. It is a novel of staggering literary achievement and immense emotional power that brings Canadian history to life.”–Kitchener-Waterloo Record“With a sharp eye, Vanderhaeghe creates scenes that are unforgettable.…The Last Crossing is his masterpiece.”–Halifax Daily News“Brilliant and engaging.…”–Calgary HeraldFrom the Hardcover edition.