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Myth and pathos in the Canadan West

One of the proudest boasts of Canadian history is that we settled the West peacefully and without violence, while our American neighbors drenched themselves in the blood and killings of Indian wars and lawless cowboy shoot-outs when America turned its face toward the Pacific after the carnage of the Civil War.

In modern times, our sense of moral superiority has been burnished by our creation of national healthcare and a universal social safety net, and in avoiding the worst of the global financial mess. Assumptions like these embolden the myths that nations take to their breasts as their strongest-held beliefs, and Canada is no exception.

At least one of these myths is severely tested in the latest work from Canada’s preeminent western novelist, Guy Vanderhaeghe, whose thick, rich novel, A Good Man (McClelland & Stewart) is in the running for the top fiction awards of 2011.

Vanderhaeghe has built his novel on the detritus of the 20 years following the Civil War. Between 1860 and 1880, the tensions of western settlement spilled across the American border into Canada, putting a nervous edge on relationships between Washington and Ottawa. The U.S., intent on using its Army to annihilate the Indian tribes of its northern plains,looked for Canadian cooperation in preventing the tribes, especially Chief Sitting Bull’s Sioux, from fighting back behind the safety of the “Medicine Line” that divided the two countries. In British Canada, meanwhile, a few hundred men of the Northwest Mounted Police were charged with chasing whiskey traders and keeping the peace as white settlement began to trickle into what would become Saskatchewan and Alberta.

In A Good Man, a disillusioned Mountie, free to leave the force after his term of duty, departs Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills, with the intention of setting himself up with a cattle ranch in Montana. Wesley Case carries a terrible secret in his heart, the guilt of an incident from a long-ago battle in Ontario when he led a regiment of Canadian Militia against an Irish Fenian invasion.

Case goes as the unpaid agent of the NWMP’s Major James Walsh, having agreed to keep him informed of the activities of the U.S. Army commander in the Montana Territory. It is shortly after the massacre of Gen. George Custer and his men at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The Americans are terrified of further Indian attacks, most fearful of all of Chief Sitting Bull, whose tribe is wandering somewhere in the Territory.

Sitting Bull’s escape to Canada, where he is sympathetically received by Walsh, does little to ease American fears. They dread the possibility of further Indian resistance, and demand his surrender and confinement to a reserve.

Meanwhile, much is happening to Case. He finds a ranch, begins a curiously restrained affair with Ada Tarr, wife of a disreputable Fort Benton lawyer, and finds his life under the threat of Michael Dunne, a man who has been tracking Case since his days back in Ontario.  In Dunne, Vanderhaeghe has created one of the most bestial characters of Canadian literature.

Vanderhaeghe resists the temptation to present Canadian treatment of the plains Indians as much better than what they suffered in the U.S. True, there was  no genocide as happened under the U.S. Army. But Canada betrayed Sitting Bull by starving his tribe into submission, forcing its return to the US. There, he becomes a carnival object in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show before he is murdered in 1890 by a native policeman acting on U.S. Army orders.

A Good Man has no shortage of dramatic episodes but does the relatively minor diplomatic standoff between Canada and the United States really warrant the 464 pages of this hefty tome? As an author who advocates that novelists take off their historian’s hats, Vanderhaeghe devotes interminable pages to historical exposition. An almost endless number of letters between Case and Walsh depict the tensions between the Major and his U.S. Army counterpart. Much of this gets in the way of a gripping good story. It would be more powerful if it had been 25,000 words shorter.

Vanderhaeghe’s new work completes a trilogy of Western novels, following The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing. It may not be his strongest, but it is a fitting finale to the series.

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