I found this a highly satisfying tale of the cultural clash and personal transformations that occur when two brothers from Victorian England go on a quest to the mountain West of the U.S. and Canada to find their missing brother, who disappeared on a mission to convert the Indians in the Montana territory of 1871. We have Charles Gaunt, a London portrait painter who reflects back on the story in this book when he comes across a news story about the death of a famous Indian guide, the half breed Jerry Potts. From the start, Addington want to use the quest as an adventure to prove himself as a man, whereas Charles finds something missing in his aristocratic life in the open intersection of cultures and classes in the West. Other key characters include: Jerry Potts, the competent guide who suffers from being split between the cultures of the whites and the Indians and suffers from abandonment by his Crow wife and son for guiding a raid on her tribe; Lucy Stoveall, a feisty woman who joins their party seeking vengeance for the murder of her sister by itinerant trappers; and Custis Straw, a Civil War veteran who now prefers the company of women over violent men. In the first, a journalist who seems to worship the cut of Addingtons jib is closing his drunken discussion on the power of the pen relative to the sword in civilization with an example of his attack on hiring an Indian to serve at an Indian Affairs trading post: Some years ago I wrote a small but influential pamphlet. I know she has remarked the unfortunate words I have employedconstrains, prohibitions, civilization; now she understands I think precisely in those terms.
I don't really have a character--at first I really liked Charles, especially his dry humour as he subtly calls people out on injustices and how much he cares about Simon and everyone really, but I got kind of annoyed with him by the end. Especially the fact that he won't stand for Addington's abusive nature, and also his patience with Charles throughout the book is quite commendable. Now that I think about it, I guess Simon is probably my favourite character. Like, for example, Charles struggling with painting the deep openness of a country so set apart from the careful hedgerows and pleasant countryside he has been taught to paint all his life. 140 I didn't realize at the time, but Charles' struggle with painting his surroundings in the New Country is a very clear metaphor for his struggle to wrap his traditional, English high-society scholar's mind around anything new, bigger than civilization, uncertain. No moment I think is more drenched with perfect irony and dry humour than Charles's comment as he, Addington and Ayto sit drinking in the early stages of their adventure. Let the logic of lead persuade them to mend their ways.") and praising his buddy Addington to no end, calling him the "cream of Anglo-Saxon civilization". Then in comes Charles with a cuttingly clever comment on the power of media (or in their case, Ayto as Addington's personal writer) saying, "To the power of the press. but one of my favourite sequences is Charles' walk down memory lane (literally) as he recalls a night-time stroll with Simon during their university days. But before I show you some examples of that, I just really like this little part that really shows the inherent difference between Charles and Simon's characters. 155 And that isn't even the best foreshadowing moment on this page--what about this little bit, which shows that Simon knows Charles far better than Charles could ever hope to know him or even himself: "Do not follow your present course. 155 I don't think it's a major spoiler to tell you that Charles spends many later years of his life in Italy. And lastly, the riddles (as Charles says); the best foreshadowing for Simon's character (in my opinion) in this scene. 255 Oh look, another Custis moment--I see this little bit as illustrating the despair he has in any search for goodness in humanity: "The first time I read the Bible cover to cover, I was in an army hospital in Washington," I said. "And what in the Good Book have you decided is absolutely and indisputably true?" I thought for a moment. 260 The characters in this book are all pretty philosophical... I had a tiny feeling (spoiler!) that Simon might be queer from some almost imperceptible hints early in the book, and I was therefore surprised and a little muddled when we learn of his having taken to the lodge of the bote, a prominent woman figure among the Crow. It seems like such a natural way for a culture to respond to trans people that it really shouts at you what a wreck Western society made of everything. It is Custis explaining the nature of Simon's companion to Charles, saying that a future bote will show signs and ask to be allowed to keep company with the women as a child and... I'm sorry that this ended up being spoiler-y but I felt like this was something that shouldn't be left out of my review because it is an incredibly interesting aspect of the story and of that culture. (I learnt about Two Spirits in my Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality course last term so I had a little bit of context for this) The new character who visits Charles at the end, Harkness, was a perfect addition. I really, really like the end of the book.
To begin with, the plot and characters are extremely compelling. Charles and Addington are like oil and water, but added to this dynamic are a cast of equally interesting characters: Custis Straw, an honourable Civil War veteran drawn by his heart into a murder mystery; Lucy Stoveall, a poor but strong-willed young woman who is bent on finding and executing her sister's murderer; Jerry Potts, a tactiturn half-Indian who is enlisted as a guide, but whose own history and backstory become a central plot element; Aloysius Dooley, a simple saloon owner who must do what is right and who is a faithful friend to Custis through thick and thin; Caleb Ayto, a racist foul drunkard and an obsequious sycophant to Addington Gaunt who plays to the ego of the latter by promising to turn their quest to find Simon into a "biographical adventure"; the Kelso Brothers, notoriuos trouble-makers thought to have murdered and raped Lucy's little sister. There are several mysteries within the plot, and the reader is kept engaged and suspense is built around these nuclei. His sentences are beautifully constructed and his description of the landscape, of action sequences, and of key character vignettes are gorgeous (Simon and the horse in the blizzard; Custis and Lucy meeting the Kelso brothers; Addington and his mercury treatments and his ultimate fate with the grizzly bear; Jerry Potts and his encounter with his son; the final great Indian battle in the coulees; the list goes on and on).
Its an event driven novel; the simple theme being of two English brothers searching for a third lost brother in the forlorn prairies of North America in the 1870s.
Charles Gaunt and his brother Addington are sent from England to the New World by their father to find their brother Simon. Also in the story are various people the meet in the West, at Fort Benton; Lucy Stoveal, whose sister has been murdered, Custis Straw, in love with Lucy and trying to keep her safe and Jerry Potts, half - white, half - Native American, torn between his two worlds and acting as guide for the Gaunts.
For that reason, I am giving it the 4-stars I think it deserves, rather than the lower-3 stars that was my reading of it. Most is told in the first person by rotating characters. If my suspicions that these are better than my experience with this one, I will probably read the third as well.
I think when you're not reading books that you have explicitly chosen, they can differ so greatly from one another that it's hard to go from one voice to another right away. Yes, both books have different narrators, but Vanderhaeghe's language is much more archaic and it started to... This novel has all the makings of exactly the sort of story I would like, yet I was never really immersed in it. The novel is written from every character's perspective at some point and Vanderhaeghe goes above and beyond what I've seen authors do before, and he writes with starkly different voices. Now this is pretty contradictory for me to say, as I love language, but the voice of Charles Gaunt was just too hard to read. So much so, that I had to look up words every time Charles was narrating. I don't think there are many readers that would go through those passages knowing what those words meant. I am glad I read it, but I wouldn't readily recommend it to a fellow reader unless they told me they liked westerns, or novels that exemplified certain time periods. On that same token, I don't think it was a good choice for the whole of Canada to read, either.
This sweeping, epic narrative highlights a setting rarely featured in novels about the Wild West. With subtle and poignant detail and drama, Vanderhaeghe takes the reader on a haunting journey that highlights the injustices suffered by the scattered Indian tribes and the hardships endured by those attempting to survive in the early frontier days.
The majority of the plot is spent wandering around the Montana prairie, and the various characters ruminate on things like stars, grass, and each othe...and yet you want to keep reading to find out what the others think. If so, why didn't Vanderhaeghe just take the plunge and write as an epistolary novel, opening himself up a whole new way of distinguishing characters via their obviously varying literacy levels? Structural issues aside, the novel itself is quite engaging. Although the non-traditional protagonists (the Indian, the female) that Vanderhaeghe attempts to write are not always as complex as the white male characters, the entire narrative drives well--as a reader, I wanted to know what was going to happen next.
Vanderhaeghe received his Bachelor of Arts degree with great distinction in 1971, High Honours in History in 1972 and Master of Arts in History in 1975, all from the University of Saskatchewan. Vanderhaeghe's first book, Man Descending: selected stories (1982), was winner of a Governor General's Award and the United Kingdom's Faber Prize.