Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Last Crossing

A Novel

by Guy Vanderhaeghe

“[Vanderhaeghe is] a Dickensian sensationalist. His flair for the lurid can be exquisite. . . . Epic novels can be loose, baggy monsters, but this one is stuffed with enough goodies to keep us entertained for days.” –John Vernon, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date January 15, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4175-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

A novel of ruggedness and salvation, an epic masterpiece set in a time when worlds collided, were destroyed, and were built anew

The Last Crossing is a sweeping tale of breathtaking quests, adventurous detours, and hard- won redemption. Master storyteller Guy Vanderhaeghe–hailed by Richard Ford as ‘simply a wonderful writer” –takes us on an exhilarating journey from the gleaming spires of Oxford in Victorian England to the dusty whiskey trading posts of the nineteenth-century American and Canadian West.

Englishmen Charles and Addington Gaunt are ordered by their tyrannical industrialist father to 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, set off to remote Fort Benton, in the outreaches of the Montana frontier. The brothers hire the enigmatic Jerry Potts, a half-Blackfoot, half-Scot guide, to lead them north, where Simon was last seen. Addington takes command of the mission, buying enough provisions to fill two wagons, and hires sycophantic journalist Caleb Ayto to record the journey for posterity. As the party heads out, it grows to include Lucy Stoveall, a fiery and beautiful woman who is bent on finding the men who viciously killed her sister; Custis Straw, a Civil War veteran in love with Lucy; and saloonkeeper Aloysius Dooley, loyal friend to Custis Straw. This unlikely posse becomes entangled in an unfolding drama that forces each one of them to confront his or her own demons.

Told from alternating points of view and in vivid flashbacks, The Last Crossing conveys the varied lives of its search party in haunting scenes–a bear hunt at dawn, the discovery of an Indian village decimated by smallpox, a sharpshooter’s devastating annihilation of his prey, a soldier’s guilt-ridden memory of his own survival, and an atypical love story. The Last Crossing is a novel of ruggedness and salvation, an epic masterpiece set in a time when worlds collided, were destroyed, and were built anew.

Tags Literary


“[Vanderhaeghe is] a Dickensian sensationalist. His flair for the lurid can be exquisite. . . . Epic novels can be loose, baggy monsters, but this one is stuffed with enough goodies to keep us entertained for days.” –John Vernon, The New York Times Book Review

The Last Crossing is a terrific novel, big, complex, gripping. . . . [His] characters. . . are palpably alive and present to the reader. Its plot–and there is an intricate and thoroughly satisfying one–is deft and put together seamlessly. . . . No clich’s lurk in his easy-flowing prose, which catches the look and feel of the North American West with arresting precision and displays it freshly, as if no one had described it before. . . . It is not too much to call Vanderhaeghe’s vast canvas magnificent.” –Anthony Day, The Los Angeles Times

“Big, satisfying . . . juicy, tough, gruesome. . . . It’s been years since I picked up a fat, lurid bodice ripper, and I embarked on The Last Crossing–full of period costumes and mannered, flowery prose–buoyed by waves of nostalgia. . . .

The journey itself turns out to be something new and scary, unfolding more like a gothic horror story than a classic horse opera. . . . This isn’t escapist literature of an adolescent’s dream, but something decidedly more bracing and grown-up.” –Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly (B+)

The Last Crossing is assured and impassioned, brutal and tender, a convincing re-creation of its milieu, a sharp portrait of its characters. . . . As a novelist, Guy Vanderhaeghe does justice to it all: distance, close-ups, and all the shading in between. . . . As always, Vanderhaeghe’s muscular prose is a pleasure to read.” –Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post Book World

“In a panorama of late-nineteenth-century Montana and western Canada, Vanderhaeghe details the lawlessness of the early frontier towns and the desperate ferocity of the dying indigenous tribes. . . . As the various searches for revenge or redemption get under way the writing achieves unforced grace and power.” –The New Yorker

“Outstanding . . . Whether merging voices, bridging cultures, exposing human weaknesses, commenting intelligently about history and its implications, dazzling with description, or flat-out spinning a riveting yarn, Vanderhaeghe owns all-around skills that are increasingly rare . . .Luckily for us, Vanderhaeghe gives countless fantastic experiences in one powerful, beautiful, and heartbreaking novel.” –Mark Luce, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Vanderhaeghe’s agreeably crowded tale recalls the vivid western American fiction of such unjustly neglected genre masters as Vardis Fisher, A.B. Guthrie Jr., Mari Sandoz, and H.L. Davis.” –Bruce Allen, Boston Globe

“[Vanderhaeghe] adeptly inhabits very different minds. . . . [in] this brisk travelogue of U.S. and Canadian territories. . . . There is. . . a fine sense of frontier justice. By the end, the right folk are paired off, returned home or eaten by bears. ” –Allison Adato, People Magazine

‘doing justice to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s ambitious, brilliant The Last Crossing is difficult. It is a wonderful novel, an ambitious upgrading of history and mythology. Packed with personality and color and beautifully written, it’s about the formation of modern North American society, frontier-style. A Western with cosmic overtones, it covers a remarkable amount of territory, as much geographical as psychological. . . . How much the reader comes to care for these characters attest to Vanderhaeghe’s vision and power. In a way, The Last Crossing is about rites of passage: from father to son, mother to daughter, culture to culture.” –Carlo Wolff, The Chicago Sun Times

“If there’s any literary justice, any thirst for adventure, any love for a great Western, then The Last Crossing won’t just cross the Canadian border, but shatter it. . . . On the spokes of this fantastic novel spin cowboys and Indians, gunfights and Civil War battles, romance and broken hearts, murder and revenge. . . . Vanderhaeghe’s genius is melding all these elements into an irresistible story.” –Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor

“Finely crafted. . . . This tale of crossings of oceans, national borders, amorous boundaries, lines of violence, the white/red divide, generations, even sexual identity bears some resemblance to the work of other serious novelists who sometimes lean toward adventure writing about the West, notably Cormac McCarthy and Jim Harrison.” –Art Winslow, The Chicago Tribune

“Vanderhaeghe describes the 1870’s frontier with laconic ease in the distinctly individual voices of characters we trust from the outset. . . . Quest and revenge, love and loss converge before the novel’s satisfying final twist.” –Anna Mundow, The Boston Globe

“Vanderhaeghe’s photo-sharp prose renders this high-plains terrain with all the bleak grandeur of filmmaker David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. . . . [Vanderhaeghe] delivers a many-stranded narrative as persuasively chance-ridden and binding as Fate itself.” –Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times

The Last Crossing is a feast for the aspiring writer, as well as for the reader. Vanderhaeghe’s masterful prose is a first cousin to poetry. . . . He has a gift for the unexpected metaphor. . . . Powerful sensory images. . . are laid out for us to see and smell and taste. . . . Now that his works are getting distributed and marketed in the United States, he should gain the wider recognition that he deserves.” –Jean Hallford Jones, San Antonio Express-News

“A new voice has arrived. . . . Vanderhaeghe draws his ensemble cast with muscular prose, which often snaps along in pitch-perfect rhythm. . . . The Last Crossing is best enjoyed for the scenery and the ambling ride. . . . . It’s the pacing and wagonloads of vivid description that make it a keeper.” –Erik Spanberg, Creative Loafing

‘sharp and eloquent. . . . [Vanderhaeghe] has contributed a new frontier novel that is braver and more eloquent than all but a handful in the western oeuvre–Canadian or American.” –Ron Franscell, San Jose Mercury News

“Brilliantly drawn. . . . The Last Crossing marks a writing master in full command of his skills. The quality of its plotting, vivid characterizations and descriptions and dark humor place it firmly in the company of the likes of Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy, though with a contrasting northern point of view. . . . Through it all, the author masterfully communicates the inner workings of human beings as they react to desperate events.” –Martin Northway, The St. Louis Dispatch

“Guy Vanderhaeghe’s epic novel won the Canadian Bookseller Association Fiction Book of the Year Award. Readers will almost certainly agree with that judgment after they experience the author’s expansive story.” –Lee Milazzo, Dallas Morning News

“Guy Vanderhaeghe paints [a] vivid picture of 1800’s Canadian Northwest. . . . The Last Crossing, thematically, is as big as the wide-open spaces of Saskatchewan and the Big Sky country that serve as the novel’s backdrop. The book is alternately an adventure yarn, a love story, a morality play and an examination of family and the bonds of brotherhood.” –Regis Behe, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“An engaging story from first to last. . . . Vanderhaeghe’s ear for language is remarkable. His deliciously nuanced Americanisms convince us of how rich, lively and inventive the English language has become on this continent. . . . It’s such an arresting tale, it’ll have you seeking out similar tales about the time, the place, the people.” –Chris Watson, Santa Cruz Sentinel

‘dazzling. . . . The Last Crossing, a western with cosmic overtones, covers a remarkable amount of territory, both geographical and psychological. . . . Vanderhaeghe masterfully aligns language and plot and his style sparkles in both long description and tight metaphor. . . . How these accommodations of self resonate and how much the reader comes to care for the characters attest to Vanderhaeghe’s vision and power. . . . Rife with paradox and duality, aglow with meaning.” –Carlo Wolff, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

“With warring tribes, cheating traders, bear hunts and more, The Last Crossing is full of adventure.” –Oregonian

“Vanderhaeghe has crafted a novel as satisfying as a thick steak with a side of roasted potatoes. . . . The great strength of Vanderhaeghe’s book lies in his characters. . . . [He] manages their interactions so skillfully that their presence as a company far exceeds the sum of their parts. . . . Vanderhaeghe’s willingness to go for grand gestures and a vast scope make for a satisfyingly old-fashioned novel.” –Justin Bauer, The Philadelphia City Paper

“Vanderhaeghe moves seamlessly between viewpoints, going deep into his characters’ psyches and memories, exploring their self-doubts, joys and demons, without, however, stinting on the action. . . . His prose is rich and vivid in every voice. . . . A big, rousing, involving story from a writer who ought to be better known than he is.” –Lynn Harnett, Portsmouth Herald

“Fascinating. . . . Readers looking for an exciting story of the last frontier should enjoy this rousing novel. The great Northwest, with the power and grandeur of its scenery, its wildlife, and its rapidly changing weather provides for innumerable dramatic scenes here.” –Mary Whipple, mostlyfiction.com

The Last Crossing is an epic masterpiece by a gifted storyteller. . . . Vanderhaeghe takes readers on an exhilarating journey from the ivy-covered towers of Oxford in Victorian England to the dusty whiskey trading posts of the nineteenth-century America and Canadian West.” –The Upper North Side

“Guy Vanderhaeghe successfully captures the feelings of wonder and dread in the backcountry trading posts of the west during the nineteenth century. . . . The Last Crossing might be a “western,” but it is still one that tackles many of the psychological issues most of us face. This novel will be a great addition to libraries already containing Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain or Jeffrey Lent’s Lost Nation.” Rob Clark, Pages

“Vanderhaeghe is a prodigiously gifted writer who makes the West, its fierce weathers, rugged landscapes and contrary characters come to life in a way comparable to McMurtry at his best. . . . No reader once embarked on this hugely involving adventure will be able to stop until it is done.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

‘sumptuously imagined and fashioned with a master craftsman’s attentiveness and finesse. . . . There’s an almost Platonic articulation of divisions and mirrorings thus working among Vanderhaeghe’s gallery of opportunists and misfits–who are nevertheless brought unforgettably to life by this consistently surprising narrative’s deft re-creation of its remote milieu. . . . The search for a missing brother adds a mythic dimension to Vanderhaeghe’s complex plot. . . . Brilliant work.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Vanderhaeghe moves deftly between present and past, between exterior and interior landscapes, choosing unique and telling details. Especially excellent are the first person passages in which richly individual voices give the story the pulse of life.” –Keir Graff, Booklist (starred review)

‘my long wait is over!! The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe is storytelling at its best. The American frontier comes to life, as does the Civil War and any other event that affects the lives of Charles and Addington Gaunt. When these two brothers are ordered to find their missing brother, an unlikely search party is formed to cover the vast ‘medicine line” frontier of Montana and Canada. McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove can no longer be considered the true frontier novel!” –Barbara Theroux, Fact and Fiction Bookstore

“Rarely are today’s hungry readers invited to such a feast of a book”There are few writers who can encapsulate a character in a single sentence, turn a phrase or manipulate a metaphor as brilliantly as Vanderhaeghe”One of North America’s best writers.” –Annie Proulx, Toronto Globe and Mail

“Terrific . . . to go into much detail would spoil the pleasures of losing yourself in this high-minded and compulsively readable novel. . . . A first-rate read–consequential and thoughtful when it comes to the complexities of character, but unapologetically popular in its appreciation of a good yarn. This is popular serious fiction of a high order.” –Douglas Kennedy, The Times (London)

The Last Crossing is an absolutely wonderful book, the kind of literature that convinces readers the world is a vast and mythic enterprise, larger than our individual crises or triumphs’A joy to read.” –National Post

“A tour de force. Wonderfully written, suspenseful and totally absorbing, this novel must be [Vanderhaeghe’s] most powerful to date”A page turner not only of epic proportions but of literary merit.” –London Free Press

“There’s no putting the book down’masterful.” –Montreal Gazette

“A tremendous achievement of imagination, capturing the West in all its grandeur. With its intricate layer 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

The Last Crossing is truly Vanderhaeghe’s masterpiece.” –Books in Canada

“[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

“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, Toronto Globe and Mail

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 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 characters 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.” –Ottawa Citizen

“The Last Crossing
‘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.” –The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo)

“The American frontier comes to life, as does the Civil War…and any other events that affect the lives of Charles and Addington Gaunt. When the two brothers are ordered to find their missing brother, an unlikely search party is formed to cover the vast ‘medicine line’ frontier of Montana and Canada. Storytelling at its best.” –Barbara Theroux, Fact & Fiction, Missoula, MT, Book Sense quote


A Book Sense 76 Selection
Winner of Canada Reads 2004
CBA Libris Awards–Fiction Book of the Year
A Nominee for the 2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize
A #1 National Best-Seller in Canada



CHARLES GAUNT I let myself into the house, stand looking up the stairs, turn, go into the study, pour a whisky and soda. Today’s mail is waiting, envelopes on a salver. My man, Harding, has laid a fire, but I don’t trouble to light it. I leave my ulster on, stand sipping from the tumbler with a gloved hand, staring at the day’s letters.
I know what they are. Invitations. Invitations for a weekend in the country. Invitations to dine. More invitations than I am accustomed to receiving. Now people court me. Queer old Charlie Gaunt has become a minor, middle-aged bachelor celebrity. Even Richards and Merton, long-time acquaintances with whom I dined tonight in the Athenaeum, did not allow my new eminence to pass unremarked. For years, I was never anyone’s first choice as a portrait painter, never admitted as a full member of the Royal Academy, only very lately handed the privilege of sporting the initials A.R.A. after my name. Merely an Associate. Tardy laurels finally pressed upon an indifferent brow.

The highest praise ever bestowed by my fellow artists was to say I ought to have been a history painter, my rendering of marble in oil paint was as exquisite as Alma-Tadema’s. Cosgrave, with a picture dealer’s disdain for the truth, once described me to a dewlapped matron as a “court painter.” By that he meant I had doodled up a portrait of a demented claimant to the throne of Spain (of which there are legion), a sallow-complexioned fellow who sat in my studio morosely munching walnuts and strewing the floor with their shells. I cannot recall his name, only that he wore a wig, but never the same wig twice. This led to an indistinct element to the portrayal of His Catholic Majesty’s coiffure which mightily displeased him.
But now, the mountain comes to Mohammed. Artistic success won in an unexpected quarter. The dry old stick Charlie Gaunt publishes a volume of verse. Love poems, no less. For months, much of London society has been mildly engrossed in tea-time speculation about the identity of the lady of whom I wrote. A small assist to sales. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Times was laudatory and the Edinburgh Review kind in a niggling, parsimonious Scottish way.
Yesterday, I ran into Machar, the Glasgow refugee, outside Piccadilly Station. He was arch, and I was short with him.
“We hadn’t guessed, Gaunt,” he cooed. “I mean the book – that’s a side of you we hadn’t suspected.”
I challenged him. “You’ve read it, have you?”
“Haven’t had time to read it yet. But I bought it.”
He was lying. If he had it at all, it was borrowed from a lending library. “Well,” I said, brandishing my stick to hail a passing cab, “then you don’t know what you’re talking about, do you, Machar?” I showed him my coattails, spun off without another word.
One of the envelopes on the tray attracts my eye, addressed by an unfamiliar hand and bearing a Canadian stamp. Inside, I discover a newspaper clipping already a month old.
The Macleod Gazette July 17, 1896
Jerry Potts is dead. Through the whole North West, in many parts of eastern Canada, and in England itself, this announcement will excite sorrow, in many cases sympathy, and in all, interest. Jerry was a type, and a type that is fast disappearing. A half-breed, with all that name implies, he had the proud distinction of being a very potent factor in the discovery (if it might be so called) and settlement of the western part of the North West Territories. When Colonels French and Macleod left their worried, and almost helpless column at Sweet Grass in “74, after a march of 900 miles and a vain search for the much vaunted “Whoop-Up” it was the veriative accident of fortune that in Benton they found Jerry Potts’
My eyes skim the remainder of the obituary, settle on the last paragraph.

Jerry Potts is dead, but his name lives, and will live. His memory will long be green in the hearts of those who knew him best, and “faithful and true” is the character he leaves behind him – the best monument of a valuable life.
The indestructible Potts dead. The news excites a pang of melancholy despite the fact that I have not laid eyes on him for a quarter-century. Yes, faithful and true he certainly was. And now, apparently famous too, after a fashion. Jerry Potts, how unlikely a candidate for renown.
Wondering who could have sent me such a notice, I peek into the envelope and dislodge a small piece of notepaper, a few words scrawled on it in pencil. There is something you must know. I can only tell it to you in person. I beg you to come soon. Signed, Custis Straw.
The shock of the name turns me to the window. In the square below, street lamps are shedding an eerie jade light which trembles in the weft of the fog.
It seems I am asked to perform at another’s bidding, just as I did more than two decades ago when my father set my feet on the Pasha, 1,790 tons of iron steamship breaching the Irish Sea, bound for New York.
Twilight, the ship trailing scarves of mist, the air wet on my face. Standing at the stern, damp railing gripped in my gloves, sniffing the fishy salt of the ocean, gazing back to the blurred lights of the river traffic plying the mouth of the Mersey.
The land slowly vanishing from sight, retiring at ten knots, as the screw boiled water and I stood, one hand clamped to my top hat to hold it in place, and peered down. Alone. The other passengers had gone to dress for dinner. The propeller frothed the water, beat it white, the ship’s wake a metalled road pointing back to England. The breeze freshened, the skirts of my frock coat fluttered. Sailors cried out, preparing to raise auxiliary sail. Chop clapped the sides of the vessel, pale veins of turbulence in the dark granite sea. A first glimpse of stars, their salmon-pink coronas.
Deferential footsteps behind me, a smiling steward had come to announce dinner was served. I shook my head, “Thank you, I shall not dine tonight.” The puzzled steward’s face. Thirty guineas passage, meals, wine included, and the gentleman does not wish to dine tonight?
Not when I preferred to gaze upon what I was leaving, to recall those figures in the Ford Madox Brown painting, The Last of England. A young couple in the stern of a boat, holding hands, faces sombre, the white cliffs of Dover sentimental in the distance, the ties of the woman’s bonnet whipping in the wind. A lady flying from England just as Simon, my twin brother, had fled it.
Beneath my feet, the deck of the Pasha lurched, grew more and more tipsy with every minute that passed. Yet that unsteadiness was nothing to how unbalanced I feel now, staring down into Grosvenor Square, wondering what has prompted Custis Straw’s blunt and peremptory summons, what it means.

Reading Group Guide


1. How does the author portray the England of the Gaunts, particularly that of Henry and Addington? The early archery contest and the secret nighttime hunting prefigure later events. Are there other hints of happenings later in the novel? What are some of the stunning moments of old-world mentality as it encounters new-world realities?

2. Addington’s perversions, his contempt and excess, run from his treatment of the Irish to horses to women. Discuss. How can you explain his character? Its origins? How do his parents play a role in the development of his character?

3. Who in the novel is the most free? Addington with his license to do as he pleases? Simon, the spiritual dropout, in one sense? Jerry Potts who can travel between the white and Indian worlds with the power of his talents? Others?

4. Is religion always treated satirically in the book? Examine some of the creeds and practices, from England to Canada.

What are the different attitudes and consequences of religion?

5. How can the novel be seen as a drama of the sin of pride? On the personal level? Larger cultural implications? How does the author expand the issue of pride beyond Addington and point to subtler concerns?

6. How are the conflicts as well as the affinities between Indians and whites set forth? Do you find the values between whites and Indians sharply contrasted? Are we led to consider not only differences among the white people but also characters who are amalgams between the two? Horse Tail gives Addington his grizzly. How do both he and Potts see honor for the Englishman in the imminent catastrophic outcome?

7. Do you find the frontier life completely alienating or daunting? Are there elements of wild Montana and Canada you might like to explore if they were to be found today?

8. The Last Crossing is a tour-de-force in presenting various narrative points of view. Were you persuaded you were hearing different authentic voices? Did the letters further expand your grasp of the characters? What is achieved by the multiple points of view? Do you trust a first-person speaker to tell the truth? Think of Charles, Custis, Lucy, Aloysius. Why do you think it was these characters who were chosen to speak in their own voices?

9. The Gaunt brothers are certainly different from each other. What binds them? Or is it really only Charles who feels bound to both Addington and Simon? Does Charles somehow represent a mean between the extremes of his two brothers? Discuss this idea.

10. Is there any way the book can be seen as the passage from innocence to knowledge? Or is it the opposite for some characters? Does this idea cast light on some of the different stories in the novel?

11. A tantalizing irony lies in Charles’s discovery that he is not what he thought he was. Is this a one-time event in the novel, or does he undergo successive discoveries?

12. Sex is sometimes lust, pure and simple, in the novel. What are examples of its redemptive power?

13. Which characters have the capacity to be ironic about their own behavior and values? Is that a touchstone for a more fully realized character, the ability to see onself clearly, if ironically?

14. Does the Simon in North America fit the one we meet in England? Do you have a feeling of inevitability about Simon’s fate? About Addington’s?

15. How does a novel like The Last Crossing, filled with dramatic events including sex and violence, differ from cheap fiction and an often sensationalist Hollywood? Is it partly the gray areas between right and wrong? Westerns often make rough justice and lawlessness heroic. What are some of the lines, as you see them, between moral and immoral behavior in the novel?

16. How is the theme of the quest worked out in The Last Crossing? Consider Charles, Simon, Addington, Lucy, and Custis, as well as Harkness. Others? How do characters achieve satisfaction or resolution? Which ones are left ambiguous in their quest?

17. Is nature depicted as an elemental force? A benevolent one? Is it a distant, inscrutable, uncaring nature we see in the book? As Charles regards the leering corpse of Witherspoon, he thinks, “But I try to keep at bay a horror that seems more real – that this vast and empty land will remain mute, will never yield an answer to Simon’s fate” (p. 138). Later, Custis is battered by a spectacular, terrifying storm: “A terrible crash claps in my ears, a hot, blue-green light spurts in my eyes, cuts out, pulling down a blind. Leaning into the charging wind, grape-shot rain peppering my face, I hold on, howling like a child. Thunder covers my screams, but I feel them scraping up my windpipe” (p. 149). The end-of-the-world imagery is underscored by the aftermath of the storm. “The sky is rinsed clean, a weak sun breaks on miles of wet plain patched with apple green, new penny copper, glints of silver. On that plain, a tiny black horse and its rider are making towards me as if the Apocalypse had shaken one of the Four Horsemen out of the clouds and down to earth” (p. 150). Discuss other significant examples of weather, geography, flora and fauna in the novel.

18. Vanderhaeghe’s characters, rich and multilayered, range from ones we recognize from our own lives to the odd and fantastic. “Covered in fine sallow dust, Madge Dray’s grieving sister, Lucy, follows the caravan, a wan, sickly ghost who refuses to ride” (p. 128). This is Lucy who fulfills a family legacy by divining the direction of her sister’s murderers. “It frightened me to see the tip of the wand twitching with a horrible palsy in the cold, blue moonlight” (p. 129). What other characters were memorable for you? Do you think truth was often stranger than fiction in the annals of the Old West? The dedication celebrates “all those local historians who keep the particulars of our past alive.” Do you find the novel does that, as well?

19. Potts knows now that to live divided is dangerous, a confusion that sickens the spirit” (p. 100). How does this division affect Potts’s life and the lives of those around him, such as Mary’s? Is there division, “a confusion that sickens the spirit” in other characters in the novel? Which ones?

20. “Nothing exists for white men unless they give it a name in their own language”.Once they give a name to a thing they think that is enough to understand it” (p. 98). How has the limitation of knowing only one language affected “white men” especially when they are conquerors? Does such a liability exist today even when English is a predominant language? On the other hand, we see the frontier independence resist classical learning: “It’s irksome for a grown man to be expected to sit at his feet and polish him an apple, just because forty years ago he could read Latin and Greek” (p. 65). Here Straw grates under Dr. Bengough’s learning as well as his influence. What other edgy juxtapositions of language or other learning do we see in the novel?


Deadwood by Pete Dexter; Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy; Fool’s Crow by James Welch; Wolf Willow by Wallace Earle Stegner; The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie; Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent; True North by Jim Harrison; Peace Like a River by Leif Enger