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.