“A Good Man” on the Canada / United States Border

“A Good Man” by Guy Vanderhaeghe  (2011)  –  464 pages

 I caught the Guy Vanderhaeghe express quite early in his writing career.  In 1985, I read a combined review of his book of short stories ‘Man Descending’ and his first novel ‘My Present Age’.  The review was meant as a kind of an introduction of this Canadian writer to United States readers.   The review was very positive, and I went out and got ‘Man Descending’.  It was as fine as the reviewer indicated it was, so soon I got ‘My Present Age’ which was also fine.  I have read all of his fiction books since then.  Here is another novelist who became a ‘go to’ writer for me, because I always trust that Vanderhaeghe will provide excellent fiction.  I am so enamored of his writing, I even learned to spell his last name.

 Those first two books were contemporary in setting, as were all of his books up until 1996 when his “The Englishman’s Boy” was published.  With that novel Vanderhaeghe switched to historical fiction, a genre he has stuck to since then.  At first I was skeptical, because historical fiction is not one of my most liked types, but as it turned out “The Englishman’s Boy” is one of my favorites of his novels.  Although the novel has an historical setting, the story allowed a lot of leeway for Vanderhaeghe’s vivid imagination.  When Vanderhaeghe next published “The Last Crossing”, I figured there was no way it could be as good as “The Englishman’s Boy”, but it was.  Only recently have I discovered that Vanderhaeghe is a trained historian.

 Last fall the third novel of this ‘trilogy’, “A Good Man” was published.  I don’t know why they call these three novels a ‘trilogy’.  The novels don’t share any characters, and they don’t even share the same setting.  All they have in common is that all three novels are historical novels which take place in the Old West.  Each of these novels stands alone and can be read independently in any order. 

 “A Good Man” takes place in Montana and Saskatchewan immediately after the Battle of Little Bighorn or as commonly known Custer’s Last Stand in 1876.  In the battle, the United States 7th Cavalry suffered a severe defeat with 268 of their soldiers killed.  The people of the United States were in the midst of celebrating the centennial of the Declaration of Independence when they heard the news, and they were shocked and humiliated.  The United States continued their war to force the Indian tribes into submission with a two-pronged strategy.  First the military continued to pursue and attack the various Indian tribes.  The other strategy was to cut off all supplies and thus starve the Indians on to the reservation.   Several of the tribes including Sitting Bull and his Lakota Sioux tribe were able to escape to Canada.

 One of the threads of “A Good Man” concerns these delicate negotiations between the United States, Canada, and the Indian tribes.  Sitting Bull is one of the main characters of the novel.   Since several of the characters are Canadians, we see events from Canada’s point of view. 

 Besides the historical context, the novel is also the story of Wesley Case, former soldier and Mounty and aspiring farmer, and school teacher, Ada Tarr, school marm.  Yes, there is a good love story as well as a crime thriller. 

Sitting Bull

How does “A Good Man” compare with the other novels in this ‘trilogy’?  I think Vanderhaeghe was a bit hampered by the necessity of sticking to the facts in “A Good Man”, because he is dealing with well-known history.  I believe this muzzled his imagination to some extent.  Especially relating to the Sitting Bull storyline, Vanderhaeghe had to steer carefully. Still it is disgusting enough how the military on both sides, especially the US side, treated the Indian tribes.  I do believe “A Good Man” is a very good novel, but not quite at the superior level of the other two novels.  If I were grading the three books, here are the grades I would give.

                                  The Englishman’s Boy   A

                                  The Last Crossing          A

                                  A Good Man                    B+

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I like Vanderhaeghe as much as you do — and would agree with the marks at the end of your review. My impression is that he tried to include just too many story lines in this book (and had to be faithful to a fair bit of history as you point out) which meant that his characters never developed as fully as they did in the other two books. Despite that concern, The Good Man did make my year-end top 10 list.

    Vanderhaeghe has said in interviews that this novel marks the end of his venture into historical fiction. As much as I enjoyed the “trilogy”, I am looking forward to his return to contemporary settings.

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  2. Hi KevinFromCanada,
    I second your opinion that you’re looking forward to Vanderhaeghe’s return to contemporary fiction, although ‘The Englishman’s Boy’ and ‘The Last Crossing’ are two of the finest historical novels I’ve read. His contemporary novels and stories are excellent. Going to contemporary will be a nice change of pace.

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