Thursday, February 12, 2015

Guy Vanderhaeghe, A Good Man

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).

Further reading/viewing:

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Luke Allan, Blue Peter: “Half-Breed”


  1. I think I'll pas this one up, although it should be interesting with all the main characters just to see how it shakes out. But you've already told me that and it is quite long.

  2. Forgot to add that I like the cover.

  3. I have seven books by Guy Vanderhaeghe, but this isn't one of them. It does sound like I'll be disappointed - I tend to prefer the novels he's set in our own time - but I am intrigued by the Fenian element. So few novels have touched upon the Fenian Raids. I know of only one, Robert Barr's The the Midst of Alarms (1894), that features one of the battles (the Battle of Ridgeway). Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Ron.

  4. Apologies, that should be In the Midst of Alarms. Don't know how that happened.

  5. Have not read any of his works, this sounds both interesting and disappointing. When a novel starts to get me looking for something else to read I normally give up, especially at near 500 pages

  6. How long does it take you to read a book this long, Ron? Do you skim a lot because you're reading it to review rather than to bury yourself in? I'm not criticizing - just curious. You review so many books for us, I really would like to know what your methodology is. I do appreciate your reviews.

    1. I read a book word for word and almost never skim (seems only fair to the writer),usually breaking it up into segments of 50-100 pages.

  7. Have heard of this author's work but haven't had the pleasure to read yet though it sounds like I shouldn't start with this one.

  8. I tell you. These days, with all I need and want to read, I can get pretty frustrated if a longggg book doesn't pay off pretty high.

  9. I always appreciate the honesty of your reviews, Ron. Today, I received my copy OF HOW THE WEST WAS WRITTEN #2 and know I have a treat in store. Thanks for all you contribute to western writing.

  10. You launch into such a fat novel hoping the story it has to tell will keep you turning pages
    Agreed. So many long books just drag the story along.

  11. Ron, I have not read frontier fiction, or even historical fiction, set in Canada or anywhere close to the Canadian border and this book, I think, provides an insight into how the Americans and Canadians dealt with Native Americans among other issues.

  12. Insightful as ever, Ron. For long books that deliver, you can't better Ken Follett's 'The Pillars of the Earth' and ''World Without End'

  13. agree, just finished his 'The Pillars of the Earth"; haven't read the other one but realize neither are Westerns and also realize it doesn't matter any more to him, but just agreeing with Nik, for anybody else

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