I wanted to like this novel more than I did. For its length (464 pages), it promises somewhat more than it delivers. I had the same reaction to the author’s The Last Crossing (reviewed here a while ago). There are a lot of ideas and food for thought in this novel about character, friendship, responsibility, Native Americans, the frontier, and U.S.-Canadian relations. But in the end it’s hard to say what it all adds up to. You can puzzle if you like over the title. Who among the novel’s male characters is the “good man”? Is there one at all?
Set in the late 1870s, partly in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan where Fort Walsh was headquarters for the North-West Mounted Police; but mostly in the frontier settlement of Fort Benton, Montana, on the upper Missouri River, the action takes place in the aftermath of Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn and settlers of the sparsely populated prairie live in terror of the Sioux and other tribes who seem to be organizing under the leadership of Sitting Bull to rid the West of whites altogether.
|Police, Fort Walsh, 1878
Characters. We meet four characters whose lives and fortunes become the central focus of the novel. Three are men: Major Walsh, the commanding officer of the NWMP at Fort Walsh; Wesley Case, a former Mountie, who has left the Force to take up ranching near Fort Benton; and Michael Dunne, an informant and thug-for-hire, who works in the interest of Fenian-Irish efforts to gain independence from Britain.
The fourth character is Ada Tarr, an independent-minded widow in whom both Case and Dunne take a romantic interest. Each of the two men has a shadowy past reaching back to the Battle of Ridgeway in 1866 when armed Irish-Americans invaded Ontario and successfully engaged Canadian troops. This rocky episode of Canadian-U.S. relations is reflected in the frontier West in the cross-border disturbance caused by Sitting Bull’s flight to Canada for protection from the U.S. Army.
|Chief Sitting Bull
There, as refugees, the Sioux seek sanctuary in Queen Victoria’s North American dominion and receive a mixed welcome. The Canadian government is not interested in making their stay more than temporary and declines to provide them with food and shelter, an obligation Canada sees as rightly belonging to the U.S. The Americans, meanwhile, are glad to have the Indians off their hands.
Plot. Against this backdrop of international relations, we get the personal stories of the four central characters. Michael Dunne is hired as a bodyguard for Ada Tarr, whose lawyer husband believes himself threatened by an unhappy former client.
Her polite kindness to Dunne leads him to fantasize about her as a soul mate, destined, when her husband dies, to be his bride. Fierce is his chagrin when he learns that she has fallen in love with Case instead. In the case of Major Walsh, there’s another meeting of hearts as he becomes enamored of the charismatic Sitting Bull (who gets my vote for the “good man” of the book’s title).
|Battle of Ridgeway
Storytelling. You launch into such a fat novel hoping the story it has to tell will keep you turning pages, and though Vanderhaeghe’s objective is more in the way of literary than genre fiction, the novel does not stint on stories.
Most of them are back stories sometimes arranged along a long, disjointed narrative thread, as when Vanderhaeghe parcels out fragments of a story about Case and an acquaintance from school days, a domineering and feckless coward, Pudge Wilson, who casts a dark shadow over the novel long before we learn the reason why.
Wrapping up. Readers of historical fiction will appreciate how Vanderhaeghe brings to life the frontier world his characters inhabit. The imagery used to depict Fort Benton is raw and unforgettable. You also appreciate how effectively historical figures are introduced into the novel’s fictionalized accounts of actual events.
The narrative wears thin, however, in the final chapters, where Vanderhaeghe falls back on familiar conventions to whip some excitement into a climax that seems to go flat for lack of imagination. Beginnings are easy; endings are hard, I know. But this one seems hurried and flat. It leaves you wishing for something less pat and more conclusive—like who is supposed to be the “good man” of the title.
A Good Man is currently available in print, audio, and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’sblog.
Blowing my own horn: For an in-depth, two-volume survey of early writers of frontier fiction, read How the West Was Written (to obtain a copy, click here).
Coming up: Luke Allan, Blue Peter: “Half-Breed”