A Good Man, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Review copy courtest McClelland & Stewart

The time is July, 1876 — three weeks after Sitting Bull and the Sioux have defeated Custer at Little Big Horn. The opening setting is Fort Walsh in Canada’s Cypress Hills, in the deep southwest corner of what is now Saskatchewan. Wesley Case is the failed son of a wealthy Ottawa-based lumber baron (the law, journalism and a possible military scandal are all part of that list) whose father has just “bought” his son’s way out of the Northwest Mounted Police. Senior Case wants Wesley to take up a political career with a safe seat in Parliament; Wesley has plans to establish a cattle and horse ranch near Fort Benton, 150 miles south of Fort Walsh in Montana.

Forts Walsh and Benton may be on the opposite sides of an international border but they are inextricably linked at the time. No one knows where Sitting Bull and the Sioux are — the Americans are determined to annihilate him and his tribe. The Canadians have a different concern. The native people recognize no national border — will the Sioux chief head north and build a coalition of tribes that will continue (or respond to) the violence?

And, just to make things more complex, there is serious ongoing tension between the new Dominion of Canada (created in 1867) and an America that is still emerging from the Civil War. Throw in the Fenian raids on Canada and the War of 1812, still a living memory, and you have a triangle of forces — two European-founded countries that don’t really trust each other but both intent on moving into the western frontier and native peoples who are resisting.

Fans of Guy Vanderheaghe (and yes I am one) will recognize this as familiar territory, literally and figuratively, for the author. The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing — both highly regarded novels — were set in this same region at virtually the same time. A Good Man completes Vanderhaeghe’s Western trilogy. If you haven’t read either of the first two, don’t worry; these three novels complement each other and can be read in any order since they explore different aspects of what was happening at the time. And each has components which take the book off into a unique direction.

If you have read the first two, you will know that both climax with fictional versions of deplorable real-life massacres of native people. A Good Man is different — the battle (and the killing went the other way this time) has already taken place when the book opens. This novel explores what is happening in the European policing, trade and settler community in the wake of that battle. Uncertainty is at play everywhere and rugged people don’t respond well to that.

One of the things that I admire most about Vanderhaeghe’s trilogy is his ability to explore the complexity of the forces at play. On the grand scale, the tensions between the invading forces and the native bands. At a community level, the concerns in both Fort Walsh and Fort Benton about what the near-term future holds. And at the personal level, for Wesley Case and his friends, life continues to go on, ranches needed to be looked after and people fall in love. Author Vanderhaeghe delivers on all those fronts (and many more minor ones, I must say).

Here’s how Wesley’s decision about his ranching future is introduced, in an entry in his personal journal, responding to the letter from his father saying he has bought out his son’s commission and “smoothed your way back into civilian life”, saying that his intervention with Sir John A. Macdonald “left the impression your candidacy [for Parliament] is not out of the question”. It is a long quote, but I would like to give visitors here a flavor of the author’s narrative style:

Since I could not take him by the shoulders, shake him, shout, “Let me be!” I blew out the candle, consigning Father and his blather to the shadows. It is the place for him; he is a shady man. So why do I take the trouble to copy choice selections of his tirade into this journal? Because at some future date I shall surely wish to relive my triumph over the Baron. He may puff himself up for unlocking my cell door, assume that I will meekly do his bidding, fulfill his defeated ambitions by becoming his parliamentary proxy, but if he thinks that will happen, he has another think coming. In the two months since this letter arrived I have had plenty of time to make my own plans, to prepare to roll the dice and become a rancher. A chancy business, but I have enlisted Joe McMullen to help me bring it to fruition. So to hell with Father. The struggle between his higher organ which prompted him towards the world of politics, and his lower organ, which urged him towards Solange [the maid for whom Case's father deserted his mother], was settled long ago. His lower organ won. Let him live with the consequences of it.

That sets the ranching story line (and offers proof of Wesley’s damaging stubborness, although some of that is a necessary characteristic for survival in frontier country). To create the vehicle for the “community tension, where is Sitting Bull?” thread, Vanderhaeghe has Wesley sign up as a go-between to deliver information back and forth between Major Walsh at Fort Walsh in Canada and his counterpart in Fort Benton. The two not only have distrust sown by different national agendas, they have very different attitudes toward how to deal with native people — and personally they hate each other’s guts, which makes co-operation an even more difficult prospect. The narrative does get stretched at points, but readers do get a very good picture of military “commanders” in total confusion around whatever threats they face.

What perhaps impressed me most about the book, however, was the device that Vanderhaeghe uses to frame his “global” story (the Canada-U.S. conflict): a love story. The Fort Benton town lawyer has been threatened and he has hired one Michael Dunne to “protect” his wife, Ada Tarr. The laywer will die but before he does Dunne has become obsessed with her — and Wesley is destined to fall in love with the well-read Ada.

We discover in Dunne’s background story one of the most disagreeable characters in recent fiction. An informer in Toronto when Confederates were seeking both money and men from there to fight the Union, he moved on to become an enforcer for Fenian elements, on both their real and perceived enemies. He has brought this violent streak to the Cypress Hills-Fort Benton country, where the continual suspicion on all sides offers many chances to profitably exploit his talents. It is no stretch of imagination to see that he will eventually adapt them to serve his obsession for Ada Tarr.

There is a very real sense in this book that the conflict between the armed forces, traders and settlers and the native bands is now playing out its final acts — the massacres of the previous two books illustrated a continuing conflict, but that has now been decided. What is at play here is what the “winners” do with their victory (again at the national, community and personal levels) and they can’t unlearn the despicable behavior that got them here when it comes to dealing with this new world.

In the broad context, A Good Man is an epic (and I don’t use that word often) account of what was happening in Western North America in the late 1870s — a story that does deserve to be revisited. In its details, however, the book chooses to do that through a very different set of devices, delving into what individuals were feeling and doing as all this went on. As the novel moved from thread to thread, I never lost interest for a moment. For this reader (a champion of the first two novels, I admit) Vanderhaeghe has produced a true tour-de-force to complete his trilogy.

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11 Responses to “A Good Man, by Guy Vanderhaeghe”

  1. anokatony Says:

    Having read everything else by Vanderhaeghe, I am, more than ever, eagerly waiting for “A Good Man”.

  2. shawna Says:

    This sounds great, Kevin. I really enjoyed “The Englishman’s Boy” and had “The Last Crossing” on my TBR list. Now I’ll have to add this one as well!

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony, Shawna: I know that this kind of historical novel is not to everyone’s taste (and often not to mine, I must admit). What I have always liked about Vanderhaeghe is the way that he makes characters the central part of his novel — while the history is important (and useful), his interest is in portraying how people both coped with it and effected it. This novel delivers on that front as well as the previous two in the triology did.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The Englishman’s Boy has stayed in my memory. Over time its weaknesses (and I did think, do think, it had some) have faded a bit and some of its sweep and vision remains.

    I should perhaps read The Last Crossing before this, but you do remind me to try another Vanderhaeghe.

    It’s interesting how he’s explored such a specific time and place over three novels. In a sense he’s rooting the Western in fact – generally of course it’s a genre with often very questionable historicity.

    A failed lawyer opening a ranch. I’m sure nothing could go wrong with that plan.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: You raise a very good point in observing that Vanderhaeghe sets all three books in the same area at the same time. For me, each heads off in a different direction — while they are fiction, in a sense the trilogy represents three very different views of the same historical situation. In that sense on my “triangulation” of Western writers (Zane Grey, Cormac McCarthy, Wallace Stegner), he is much closer to the Stegner approach, although there are some McCarthy elements in his work.

    I agree that he is not perfect — his attention to detail sometimes leads to some frustratingly slow parts that don’t have much reward. Like you, I’ve found that they tend to fade in time while the stronger parts grow in signifigance. I will also admit that it helps a lot to “know” the territory — I’ve only been to the Cypress Hills a couple of times (they are on no beaten path) but it is a very different part of the world that the author captures particularly well. I am hoping that fellow judge Trevor gets to this one eventually — he grew up in Idaho, not far from where all this action takes place.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The only Zane Grey I’ve read was Riders of the Purple Sage, which I rather liked but I wouldn’t recommend it to most serious readers.

    But then like most serious readers I’m not always a serious reader. Grey’s a lot of fun.

    Stegner I haven’t read yet and should. I own one certainly, recommended by either you or Trevor (or both, but I think just one of you). A tremendous looking writer.

    Curious how alluring the Western can be. A testament perhaps to the landscapes that ultimately produce the genre.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    The Giller Jury is going to face an interesting discussion when it comes to the shortlist — both this book and The Sisters Brothers are “Westerns” set in roughly the same time. At that point, all similarity ends — and I can only see one of the two advancing to the shortlist. I’d plump for this one, but that is more a reflection of my reading tastes than anything else.

  8. Buried In Print Says:

    Although I’ve had the other two volumes in this trilogy on my shelf for years, I’ve never read them; and although I fully intended to read them before I turned to A Good Man, I only finished the last book on the longlist yesterday and the prize is announced tomorrow. (Close one.) All that to say that unlike you, I was not a champion of his other novels.

    But I can readily understand how you could be, even after just one volume. It’s an old-fashioned style, and not a time period in which I’m terrifically interested, but I was surprisingly engaged throughout (a good bit of that going to Ada’s character — and her love of George Eliot — but not that alone).

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I can understand why some readers (and the jury, I presume) don’t share my enthusiasm for Vanderhaeghe’s trilogy — as you point out, the style is somewhat old-fashioned and the narrative quite conventional. I don’t find fault with that at all and would second your assessment that with this novel it is the characters who make the book special — even though I think the author’s three story lines are also very well-developed.

  10. Marilyn Potts Says:

    I love Guy Vanderhaeghe’s book and it is indeed the characters that always bring me back. I’m just starting to read “A Good Man.” Did you know he wrote two very interesting plays?

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marilyn: I did know that he had written plays, although I have neither seen nor read them. I think for me, in his historical novels, it is the way that he is able to establish characters inside the historical context that is so impressive — there is a balance between people and context. As I said in an earlier comment, I’ll be interested in seeing where he heads now since he says his historical novel period is finished.

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