A fine-looking western just rode into town from up North, and you’d best take notice if you know what’s good for you. The Canadian writer Guy Vanderhaeghe has been publishing best-sellers and winning national awards for decades, but American readers have mostly shrugged and looked away, despite praise from Annie Proulx, Richard Ford and a posse of reviewers who’ve been trying to scare up a broader audience for this Saskatchewan novelist.
His latest, “A Good Man,” concludes a fantastic historical trilogy set on both sides of the long, blurry border that runs between Canada and the United States. Along with its predecessors, “The Englishman’s Boy” and “The Last Crossing,” this new novel canters through the Old West, offering a chance to survey our history and our national myths from the more nuanced perspective of our giant, wary neighbor. Rather than a series, these three novels form a triptych about North America in the second half of the 19th century, a vast exploration of the battles, negotiations and migrations that swept up immigrants, Indians and settlers. Each of these three books has its own focus and tone — you don’t have to read them all or in order — but if you’re looking for strapping historical fiction with morally complicated characters, hitch a ride here.
“A Good Man” opens in the wake of Gen. George Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn, a shocking interruption of the country’s centennial celebration of 1876. The Sioux feel emboldened; the United States is “having fits of hysterics,” and Canada worries it could become a casualty of America’s redoubled efforts to solve its Indian problem once and for all. (Memories of Washington’s land grab in Mexico are still raw.) The first chapters serve as a kind of Union Station from which plot tracks run off in several directions. It’s a structure that could easily pull a novel apart, dragging us across miles of exposition or leaving us stranded on the rails of some dull subplot. But Vanderhaeghe manages these various story lines with agility, filling in historical detail without losing speed, jumping from one line to another without losing us and finally drawing them all together without losing his credibility.
Unless you’re a serious student of U.S.-Canadian history, you’re bound to feel enlightened by this dramatization of long- forgotten tensions involving our two countries. Vanderhaeghe describes brokers who troll through Canadian bars looking for naive young men to serve as substitutes for well-to-do Americans in the Civil War. He uncovers the network of spies that flit back and forth across the border. He shows how deftly — for a time — the Sioux manage to play their Canadian hosts against the Americans. And he introduces us to Irish militants who use the United States as a safe haven for attacking the British just over the border.
But what makes “A Good Man” so captivating is the way Vanderhaeghe draws us through this complicated puzzle of international and racial conflicts while keeping his story grounded in the intimate lives of ordinary people. His central character and sometimes narrator is Wesley Case, a conscientious young man set on reinventing himself. Haunted by a shameful military error during the Battle of Ridgeway — an 1866 conflict between Canadian troops and Irish American radicals attempting to invade Canada — he’s determined to be a good man, to live a life of rectitude and honor at a time when ideas of law and order are still “notional and shaky.” To start anew, he resigns from the North-West Mounted Police and breaks off contact with his overbearing father, who dreamed of buying him a seat in Canada’s Parliament. Instead, Case intends to “roll the dice and become a rancher.”
Vanderhaeghe knows his way around this tense psychological territory (“The Last Crossing” featured a similarly tyrannical father), but what’s surprising here is the element of romantic comedy. Case’s struggle to manage 1,000 acres in Northern Montana gradually gives way to a charming love story — a touch of Jane Austen with Mr. Darcy in a cowboy hat. Despite Case’s determination to smother his remorse in hard work, an unlikely woman in town catches his eye and manages to melt his priggish attitude. If you know the work of the Seattle writer Ivan Doig, you’ll recognize this blend of romance and rectitude set against the crushing labor of ranch life.
That courtship gives the novel its warmth, but “The Good Man” never loses its lightning and thunder. For one thing, there’s a creepy villain slithering through these pages: Michael Dunne, an aggrieved man with a photographic memory, a diagnostic interest in human nature and an unstoppable drive to get what he wants. “He likens himself to water,” Vanderhaeghe writes. “It finds a way around every obstacle because it is patient.” From the Civil War to the Indian attacks to the Irish skirmishes, Dunne finds a way to turn every conflict to his deadly advantage. When Case inadvertently crosses him, nothing will satisfy his thirst for revenge.
Case, meanwhile, is not as eager to withdraw from politics as he claims. By offering to serve as an informal liaison between Canadian and U.S. officers dealing with the Sioux, he keeps himself at the flash point between the two nations. His Canadian contact is the historical figure Maj. James Morrow Walsh, a North-West Mounted Police officer who befriended Sitting Bull and played a critical role in the country’s Indian relations. Indeed, there are moments when Case’s front-row seat on history seems too improbable, as though he’s both Forrest Gump and George Kennan, offering strategic advice to the Americans, Maj. Walsh and Sitting Bull. And these two larger-than-life figures of the late 19th century come close to wresting the novel away from Vanderhaeghe’s fictional hero. Sitting Bull, exhausted and harried, burdened by responsibility for his ragged people, moves through these pages with melancholy eminence. And Walsh, a man of rash passions and indissoluble loyalties, becomes the novel’s tragic “good man” — disgusted by both countries’ treatment of the Indians, but unable, ultimately, to protect them from either government’s genocidal pragmatism.
Admittedly, there’s a certain slackening in this final novel of the trilogy, a bulging of the waistline that wasn’t noticeable 15 years ago. Vanderhaeghe has an omnivorous appetite for diversions and tangents that might exhaust some readers, but for that broad storytelling magic that lets you sink into the past and the lives of rich characters, he’s still one of the very best.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
A GOOD MAN
By Guy Vanderhaeghe
Atlantic Monthly. 464 pp. $24.95