If Guy Vanderhaeghe built houses instead of stories, he would be the kind of carpenter who did everything by hand, who fashioned every joint with a chisel and a knife, because details matter. And apparently they matter to lots of readers, because Vanderhaeghe is a bestselling writer across Canada. His last novel, The Englishman’s Boy, won the most coveted literary award in Canada, the Governor-General’s Award. But unlike most of the famous writers who win these kinds of things, Guy’s novels are actually good. And they’re for everyone. The Nation met him a couple of weeks ago when he was in Montreal.
The Last Crossing, Vanderhaeghe’s latest novel, is a 400-page epic novel of romance and adventure. But it doesn’t use any of the cheap tricks normally associated with “western” stories. Vanderhaeghe isn’t interested in showing off his prowess as a writer, in using big words and plot twists and stereoptypes for their own sake. He doesn’t try to turn the hard questions of history into a broad “sweeping” canvas for a swashbuckling adventure epic. What Vanderhaeghe offers us is the Western landscape, in focus. In other words, he’s a writer who believes in writing “true” fiction about the era he’s evoking rather than imposing his own ideas onto history. Because of this, his every sentence is dense with the results of his diligent research. At one point, he considered becoming a professional academic historian. The Last Crossing is dedicated to “those local historians who keep the particulars of our past alive.”
Vanderhaeghe is himself something of an oddity among popular writers -he’s a guy who has lived his whole live in one place: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His ancestors were Belgian farmers and his own father was a rodeo cowboy, of sorts.
“As I got older, I became more interested in getting to know the history of my place,” Vanderhaeghe told The Nation. “Where a person is raised and lives conditions their sensibilities. What I know is the West, so I guess that’s why I write westerns.”
The way Vanderhaeghe himself does research is a combination of book-reading and what he calls “walking the land.” For The Last Crossing, which takes place in the late 18th century, he travelled all over the prairies, and to Oxford, England, where two of the characters are from. He also spent a lot of time with the historians of Saskatchewan, and in Fort Whoop-Up, an “interpretive society” near Lethbridge, Alberta, that used to be a trading post on the old whiskey routes, where whites and Blackfoot businessmen traded goods.
He also read a lot of journals and diaries and letters written by the actual people who lived in that time.
“Careful and diligent research is a way to make the reader feel grounded, to have a sense of the sights and sounds of a story, before I ask them to believe the voices of my characters,” says Vanderhaeghe.
His way of writing a historical story as accurately as possible is to write the action from the point of view of several characters, each of whom represents a kind of person, with a particular background and way of looking at things. Together, these points of view give us a composite of a certain time and place.
The Last Crossing is a quest tale set in the American and Canadian frontier West in the latter half of the 19th century. The “crossing in question” is a long voyage taken by horse and caravan across the prairies of the American and Canadian West, crisscrossing the border between what is now Montana, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The party undertaking this trip together each have their own reasons for undertaking the voyage: there are British gentlemen brothers, Charles and Addington Gaunt, Custis Straw, a shell-shaken Civil War veteran, his friend Aloysius Dooley, a saloon-keeper, Caleb Ayto, a dishonest journalist, Lucy Stoveall, a washerwoman bent on avenging the murder of her sister, and their guide Jerry Potts, a Scottish/Blackfoot half-breed hey’ve hired as a guide. Potts, it turns out, was a real historical figure Vanderhaeghe learned about from his research at Fort Whoop-Up.
Potts is a skilled guide who is respected by many of the whites who know him, but his skills are often abused by his employers. He is conflicted about his role as protector of the white Englishmen – he feels charged to protect them as fellow humans and by his half-Scottish blood, but is outraged by what he sees of them and other white men who have ravaged his people. The Englishmen have different points of view: Addington, is the perfect caricature of an arrogant white colonist. Driven almost to madness by an unchecked case of syphilis and his enthusiasm for hunting game, he thinks Potts should be grateful for the money he is being paid. But he has no idea at all about the furious interior battle going on behind Potts’ silence. Addington’s brother, Charles, a painter, is more sensitive to the attitudes of the others while he is completely captivated by the enormous and untamed landscape that is so different from his home in Britain.
The story Vanderhaegue tells from these people’s eyes give us a pretty good idea of the West, as seen by the opposing points of view of his characters.
“I decided to use a split narrative because I realized after I wrote 200 pages in the omniscient voice, the story sounded flat -the author of a story can become a dictator very easily,” says Vanderhague. I really believe that [revisiting history fictionally] is a way of incorporating or considering the differences in people perceptions and points of view.”
When Vanderhaeghe grew up in Saskatchewan, he says, he didn’t know much about the Blackfoot people.
“If this novel is about anything, it’s about racial divisions, and divisions between people in general,” he says. “Largely, the genre of the Western has relied on caricatures – but also, historically, people have been very able to get by on stereotypes to structure what they know about other people.
“Now, there’s an interest in trying to become [sensitive] to different points of view, so one way to address that is by [telling stories] in different voices. I hate the word ‘symbol,’ but the character of Jerry Potts represents a point of view that was largely ignored by many [white storytellers] who went before me. Now, in Saskatchewan where I live, no one can ignore the First Peoples – they form 30 per cent of the population, more in the cities.”
Some might say that Vanderhaeghe has no right to tell any story in any voice but his own – but as a skilled storyteller, he has the ability ot bring the past alive, by making up characters who can tell it in their own voices. Because history, after all, only exists through human eyes.
“Storytelling is a way of calling into question what we know. Attempting to bridge our differences now is difficult. It’s a matter of how we’re going to reach some kind of consensus about our collective pasts. Because facts about history are just facts, just information. There’s still the question of what we’ll do with that information, how information can be used to tell stories about history.”
The Last Crossing
McClelland and Stewart, 394 pp.